Another year, another AUS championship banner to hang for the UNB Reds men’s hockey team, but the team’s most difficult task is yet to come.
Head coach Gardiner MacDougall’s squad took home their second straight conference title on Wednesday night in Antigonish with a 7-1 shellacking of longtime rival St. Francis Xavier to close out the best-of-three final series of the AUS playoffs. This followed a similarly impressive 5-1 victory on Monday evening in the friendly confines of the Aitken Centre.
The Reds’ undefeated run through the playoffs was a fitting conclusion to the AUS season where UNB stood head and shoulders above the competition for the majority of the year, finishing the regular season with 53 points - 14 more than second place Saint Mary’s and 20 more than the third ranked X-Men. They scored a whopping 35 more goals and gave up 29 less than the Huskies, who ranked second in the conference in both goals for and goals against.
The team’s dominance was also reflected in their individual player statistics. Four of the top 6 point scorers in the AUS were UNB players, led by conference MVP Chris Clapperton. The only two goaltenders in the conference to have goals against averages under two? UNB’s Alex Dubeau and Rylan Parenteau.
However, the difficult truth remains that the Red’s excellent AUS season will be of little consolation if the team is unable to reach the finals of the upcoming U Sports national championships in Lethbridge, AB.
The eight team tournament, which begins on March 17th and will air on national television on Sportsnet, marks UNB’s chance at redemption after a heartbreaking semi-final loss on home ice to St.FX during last year’s nationals.
“The national championship is the next step, and we’ll see how the rankings go,” MacDougall said. “We’ll get in a couple good days of practice and we’ve got an opportunity in front of us, but it is all about being best prepared for game number one.”
The seeding and draw for the 2019 University Cup is expected out on Sunday.
Among the teams standing in their way will be defending national champions, the University of Alberta Golden Bears. The Golden Bears are the only team in the nation ranked above the Reds and are the only team that can match UNB’s depth of talent on paper.
The prospect of an epic clash between the two giants of Canadian collegiate hockey should excite any fans of U Sports hockey but both teams will still need to win two more games against some of the best teams in the country in order to make the dream matchup a reality.
For UNB, a failure to do so for a second year in a row would be seen as nothing short of a major disappointment for a program that expects greatness every single year. Another AUS championship banner for the Aitken Centre rafters and temporary bragging rights over St.FX are wonderful accomplishments but there is still much work to be done before this season can be considered a success for the Reds.