The Alberta Golden Bears completed a season of upsets in CIS competition Sunday night, knocking off the defending champion UNB Varsity Reds 3-2 in the men's hockey final. As upsets go, this was a pretty minor one compared to those that took place in many of the other CIS championships: Alberta's regular season was almost as good as UNB's (21-5-0-2 compared to 26-1-0-1), and they entered the nationals as Canada West champions and the No.2 seed.
The path to the University Cup was no cakewalk, though: Alberta started the tournament with a shocking double-overtime loss to the sixth-seeded Moncton Aigles Bleus Thursday night. They rebounded with a decisive 7-3 thumping of McGill Friday, but wouldn't even have made the final if McGill had lost to Moncton Saturday afternoon. Fortunately for the Golden Bears, the Redmen came through, punching their ticket to the final and a date with the Varsity Reds.
The Varsity Reds were on a high heading in: they'd won 21 straight games in CIS competition, and had scored 10 goals in their two tournament games while only allowing one. With a balanced lineup featuring CIS Player of the Year Rob Dennigar and AUS Rookie of the Year Hunter Tremblay up front, plus second-team All-Canadian Michael Ouzas between the pipes, UNB looked like a good bet to become just the third No.1 seed to win a national championship this year.
Alberta had just the thing to stifle the Varsity Reds' offense, though: a hot goalie. Aaron Sorochan stopped 40 of 42 UNB shots and made several great saves, while the Golden Bears capitalized on their own scoring opportunities and put three pucks behind Ouzas. It was close all the way through, but Alberta centre Ian McDonald's power-play marker midway through the third proved the eventual difference between the sides. McDonald had a strong game overall, setting up Tim Krymusa's tying goal in the second period. His four goals and two assists throughout the three games were enough to give him the tournament MVP title.
UNB came incredibly close to forcing overtime on several occasions, particularly when Tremblay rang a one-timer off the iron inside the last two minutes. They couldn't find a way to force the puck home, though, and Alberta claimed their record 13th national title as a result. The victory wasn't without controversy, as there was one puck that may or may not have snuck across the line behind Sorochan: hopefully, that part will make the highlight shows so viewers can decide for themselves. As any sports fan knows, sometimes you get those breaks and sometimes you don't.
Was the victory due to great goaltending, the curse of the top seed, the effort and determination of an underdog Alberta team, or merely the angle that saw Tremblay's shot ring off the iron instead of finding the mesh? It could have been any of the above. The Golden Bears deserve a lot of credit, though: they rebounded from a crushing first loss to the bottom seed in pure style, demolishing a very good McGill squad to improve their chances of making the finals. Once in the finals, they didn't appear intimidated by UNB's impressive record and all-star lineup. They played their game to perfection, and came away with the University Cup as a result.
For the Varsity Reds, it's got to be a bitter end to a fantastic season: one small comfort might be that they're anything but alone in the pile of favorites who couldn't win the last game. It really makes one wonder if it's worth it to give it your all in the regular season and take the high seed (and the subsequent target on your back), or if it's better to finish moderately well, turn it up in the playoffs and use underdog status to your advantage? CIS results this year would certainly seem to favour the good teams who find another gear in the post-season over the great teams that dominate all year long.