If ever a University Cup has been won in a 20 minute span, it was this University Cup. A five spot in the first period against the defending champs from Alberta was just the start the UNB V-Reds needed en route to claiming their third national championship.
I was lucky enough to be at the Fort William Gardens all weekend long helping broadcast the Alberta games, and after watching the Bears play all season long I can confidently say that first period against UNB was the worst period of hockey the team has played all year. Aaron Sorochan who is arguably the best goaltender in the CIS was not himself in the first twenty minutes, but give full marks to UNB who took advantage of several horrendous Alberta giveaways. Watching Sorochan all season long, he could always be counted on to make that one big save to allow the Bears to get into the game - that didn't happen in Thunder Bay and the result was a huge 6-3 win for the V-Reds.
UNB came out with a whole lot of jump against the Bears Thursday, which would be expected at the University Cup, but even the UNB radio crew was surprised by just how dominating UNB was. The rematch of last years national final was hyped as the game of the tournament, but was as good as over after the Bears could only count for one in the first. Eventual tournament MVP Lachlan MacIntosh capped off the game with a spectacular breakaway goal in the third right after the Bears failed on a 5 on 3 powerplay, as the Bears went 0/4 with the extra man.
Saint Mary's started the tournament strong with a 4-1 win over McGill in the tournament opener Thursday afternoon, going 3 for 8 with the man advantage. Saint Marys looked poised after that win to have another solid outing against the Queen's Cup champions from Western Ontario Saturday afternoon.
McGill had to regroup quickly, as they faced the Mustangs from Western Ontario Friday afternoon at the Gardens. In a tight one, the Redmen were able to come away with the 4-3 win, and forcing Western into a game with the Saint Mary's Huskies in which they would need to win by at least three goals to punch their ticket to the final Sunday. The Redmen were eliminated even with the victory.
In the night cap, the Bears faced the host T-Wolves of Lakehead. I was expecting a huge crowd for the game with Lakehead averaging over 3 000 a game in the regular season, but to my surprise the announced attendance was only 2 746 (roughly the same as all the other tournament games). The building wasn't loud in the least, and the crowd was not a factor. The reason for the lack of fans - the tournament organizers only sold full tournament passes, meaning all those people not willing to shell out over $100 bucks for the pass and only wanted to watch the games they chose could not get individual game tickets. From all accounts this won't be the case next year as the feedback was extremely negative regarding ticket sales.
In a relatively tame game the Bears skated away with a 2-1 win. In a bizarre situation, Bears head coach Eric Thurston was forced to pull Sorochan with a 2-0 lead late in the third to get the Bears at even in goals for and against, to have any hope at advancing to the final. Lakehead's bench was hollering for a too many men on the ice penalty before they realized what was going on - so I can only imagine what the fans thought was going on seeing a goalie pulled to go up 3-0. The Bears couldn't capitalize, and Shandor Alphonso scored the empty netter for the T-Wolves. With the win the Bears were eliminated, just like McGill after their win.
Saturday provided the biggest surprise of the tournament. Saint Mary's went into Saturday needing not even a win to advance. The Huskies could have advanced with a win, or even a one or two goal loss. With their backs against the wall, the Mustangs exploded for five goals in the third to claim a 7-2 win, shocking the Huskies and ending their national title hopes in the process. The 'Stangs became the second team, after Alberta did it last year in Moncton, to advance to the final after an opening game loss.
In the night game, the host T-Wolves faced the V-Reds. Again without a big crowd behind them, Lakehead couldn't muster a win as UNB rolled to a 3-1 win. Lakehead goalie Chris Whitley was the player of the game in both Lakehead losses, and made things closer than they really were. The fifth year senior Whitley was the story for the T-Wolves all weekend - which was fitting as it was Whitley's final time in a Lakehead uniform.
After looking as though it would be an all AUS final before Saint Mary's collapse, it was UNB and Western for the University Cup. UNB came out flying again sending ten shots on net in the first to Western's only one. Western was clearly the better team in the second, but in the third UNB came back and asserted themselves and on the back of MacIntosh's hat trick won their second cup in three seasons.
The V-Reds went in seeded as the #4 team, but surely would have been the #1 seed if they had won their AUS final against Saint Mary's. They were the most complete team all weekend and deserved the championship. The logjam with Saint Mary's, Western and McGill all being 1-1 in pool B opens the question of whether the tournament format needs to be adjusted. That's a question that has been brought up year in, year out and likely won't be resolved anytime soon.
UNB has to be given credit for a very solid three games, and in many ways they won the tournament in the first 20 minutes against an Alberta team that just didn't look like the team I've watched all season long. UNB was the best team over the tournament, and capped off a great season with another title.