Well everyone, I'm more than a little late with my weekly posting as I'm still coming off my Olympic focus – since the time I was a kid during the 1976 Montréal Olympics I've followed every Games passionately, and only sleep, school and now work comes between watching the events on TV, reading about them or talking about them. During UNB's first two games while we were broadcasting I kept sneaking a peak at the CAN-USA women's gold medal hockey game on my laptop on Thursday and the CAN-SWE women's curling match on Friday. And now the Olympics are done and so is UNB, so I decided to wait out the Acadia-SMU series before finally posting.
This is probably the first time since they went with this playoff format that one of the two AUS teams getting a first-round bye hasn't advanced to the finals. Maybe those doubting the oft-hyped competitiveness of the AUS have learned a lesson. Or maybe it is just a reinforcement of the adage that playoffs are different from the regular season.
So UNB and StFX -- where to start? Do you remember how Slovakia trapped Canada for most of the game last week? We saw an awful lot of that this series. Do you remember how USA blocked shots against Canada during the World Junior gold medal game? We saw a lot of that. In that same game, do you remember how Canada's goaltending struggled? We saw that as well. And going back to the Olympics, do you remember how Ryan Miller stood on his head all Olympics? Well we saw a lot of that too, and his name is StFX rookie Bryan Gillis.
So what we first saw in the regular season win over UNB and all through their sweep in the playoffs was a well executed netural zone trap by StFX. You can call it a tight defensive system, or rope-a-dope, or left wing lock, or the 1-2-2 (or more accurately in this case the 1-4), or whatever you want, but X-Men coach Brad Peddle put on a clinic on how you design a plan to shut down a skilled opponent who play a puck possession game. It is boring, a buzz kill and no fun to watch, but man is it effective when done well. The X-Men were never behind in a game, so they weren't forced to break from their winning system. Of course it helps when your goalie is standing on his head, but Gillis was helped in the first game and most of the second game when his teammates kept the UNB shooters to the perimeter. It also helps when your team is incredibly opportunistic. Every time UNB made a mistake the puck seemed to end up in their net. In the second game of their series StFX scored 3 goals on 5 shots, didn't register a shot in the third period, were outshot 31-6 and still held on for the 3-2 win.
StFX's penalty kill was particularly strong. They limited the top power play in the regular season to a 1-for-18 mark. Meanwhile, StFX was 2-for-12 on the power play in the series and both goals were game winners. They also scored two shorties. Their PK varied from a strong box to double-teaming the puck carrier and kept UNB off balance. And off balance describes UNB all series. It took them until the third period of Game 2 to have any success penetrating the X neutral zone trap when they finally started chipping, dumping and retrieving the puck, but Gillis was almost always there to make the big save. At the other end of the ice both UNB goaltenders couldn't make the timely big must-save, and appeared to struggle to stay focused through long sections of inactivity. UNB is a team that played with a ton of confidence all season, yet they often looked to be squeezing their sticks when they'd fall behind in games in the series. UNB is built for speed, yet the young, mostly big, mostly mobile and mostly nasty X d-men looked to be getting better every game they played and they took penalties at will as the V-Reds power play struggled. The UNB forwards struggled to muscle for space in the slot. All during the series and not just on the penalty kill, every time a V-Red wound up to take a shot, one or two X-Men went down on one knee to block the puck. We didn't see much of that from the X-Men in the regular season.
UNB struggled against the Saint Mary's trap last season in the AUS finals, and lost. StFX executed an even better trap, and UNB is out in the second round this year. Hopefully for the team and their supporters the V-Reds can learn from this. When I was talking to UNB coach Gardiner MacDougall briefly before Game 3 and asked how they would adjust their game plan he said, "Do you expect to see both teams out there trapping tonight? Of course not. Players come to UNB to play a skilled up-tempo game." In other words, UNB attracts hockey players who want to play fun hockey, but unfortunately the fun is over for them this season. UNB did eventually adjust their game play to counter the StFX trap, but if you haven't played chip-and-chase or dump-and-chase in the regular season, there isn't a lot of time to master it in the playoffs.
Enough dissection of UNB. There is lots of that happening online if you want to continue the exercise. Turning to Acadia-Saint Mary's, the Huskies appeared to find their missing groove late in the regular season and continued that momentum into the playoffs. They swept Moncton in two games and came out fairly unscathed from a nasty second game against les Aigles Bleus. They outplayed Acadia in the first game of the semis, yet lost 2-1. SMU went on to win the next three games, outshooting the Axemen by a healthy margin every game. Last night the vaunted Huskies power play finally came to life, and went 5-for-7 in the game, with four of those goals coming in the first period to break Acadia early. Don't forget, SMU is a veteran-laden team on a mission to erase the stain of that meltdown against Western last year at Nationals. That is probably all the motivation they need this year.
They haven't announced the dates of the best-of-five StFX-SMU AUS championship series yet. If the X-Men stick with their trap, I suspect the Huskies have enough hard-nosed players to find a way to battle through to the net, and if the series opens up the advantage should go to the SMU offence. It will be interesting to see which first-year goalie blinks first, if at all. Whatever happens, I admit it will seem odd to not see UNB at Nationals this year. At least we don't have to worry about the next two years in Fredericton ….
UPDATE: (the AUS has just released the schedule)
AUS Championship Series (Best 3-of-5): Saint Mary’s (3) vs. StFX (5)
Game 1: Sunday, March 7 - StFX at Saint Mary’s, 7:00pm
Game 2: Tuesday, March 9 – Saint Mary’s at StFX, 7:00pm
Game 3: Monday, March 15 – StFX at Saint Mary’s, 7:00pm
Game 4: Wednesday, March 17 – Saint Mary’s at StFX, 7:00pm*
Game 5: Friday, March 19 – StFX at Saint Mary’s, 7:00pm*
SMU eliminates Acadia (Glenn MacDonald, The Chronicle-Herald)
Early X-piration date for V-Reds (David Ritchie, The Daily Gleaner)