SMU Huskies upset UNB Varsity Reds to advance to AUS men’s hockey final

The Saint Mary’s Huskies completed their upset of the heavily favoured University of New Brunswick Varsity Sunday night at the Halifax Forum with a 1-0 win.

By Matthew Scrimshaw

Battle for the puck 1
SMU defenceman Mitchell Maynard (left) battles a UNB player for the puck during Sunday night’s 1-0 win.

The Saint Mary’s Huskies completed their upset of the heavily-favoured University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds Sunday night at the Halifax Forum with a 1-0 win.

In a tight checking affair witnessed by an announced crowd of over 1,700, the Huskies advanced to the 2014 Subway Atlantic University Sport men’s hockey championship thanks to an early third period goal by Stephen Gillard and the stellar goaltending of Anthony Peters.

With their victory, Saint Mary’s has eliminated UNB from the AUS playoffs.

A tale of two seasons

The AUS conference-leading Varsity Reds entered the playoffs with a sparkling record of 24-3, having won all four of their regular season match-ups against the Huskies.  Their No. 1 ranking in the Atlantic conference ensured them of a first-round bye into the semifinal.

The fifth-seeded Huskies meanwhile limped into the playoffs with a record of 14-14, and had to get past the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers in the first round.

They also had to overcome memories of last year’s heartbreaking losses to UNB in both the AUS and Canadian Interuniversity Sport finals.

According to longtime Huskies head coach Trevor Stienburg, the team’s confidence never wavered during a trying season.

“We finished .500 and it was a frustrating year, but the guys kept the faith.  They didn’t get frustrated and kept their confidence.”

Peters shuts down high-powered offence

The Varsity Reds, boasting two of the league’s top four scoring leaders, entered the game eager to reassert their regular season dominance.  They controlled the game through the first two periods, but were continually stymied by Huskies goaltender Anthony Peters.

Peters thwarted Reds forward, Phillippe Maillet, on a two-on-one at the 6:31 mark of the opening period with a smart glove save, and made several stops through traffic as the Huskies killed off Gerrad Grant’s tripping penalty early in the second.

Stienburg, the three-time CIS Coach of the Year, praised the performance of Peters, but was quick to give credit to his entire team.

“We’re proud of him and he’s getting the attention he deserves because he’s playing that well.  At the same time, I think all the guys have stepped up, and made a conscious decision defensively to block shots and keep teams on the outside.”

The excellent play of Peters was matched early on by that of Reds backup goaltender Joel Vienneau, who got the nod in place of regular starter Charles Lavigne.

Though not tested as often, Vienneau made several key saves to preserve the early scoreless tie.  He made a sliding stop off a Steven MacAulay one-timer late in the first period, and turned away a second period shorthanded breakaway by Ryan Hillier with a terrific glove save. He also stopped a penalty shot awarded to Huskies captain Lucas Bloodoff in the waning moments of the third period to keep UNB’s hopes alive.

UNB head coach Gardiner MacDougall defended his decision to start Vienneau, pointing to his performance and previously unbeaten record.

“We just thought maybe it was an opportunity for Joel, and he played outstanding last night and gave us every chance to win.”

Bloodoff’s leadership

Saint Mary’s broke the deadlock early in the third period, after a failed clearing attempt, by UNB, was intercepted by the Huskies’ bruising six-foot-two, 230-pound forward Bloodoff.

Bloodoff circled around the UNB net before sliding a pass to an uncovered Stephen Gillard, who threaded a shot through a crowd of players in front of the goal and past Vienneau.

The assist capped a remarkable two-game performance by Bloodoff, the 2012-13 CIS Senator Joseph A. Sullivan Player of the Year recipient.  He also scored the double-overtime game-winning goal in Game 3 of the series.

Stienburg insisted that Bloodoff’s impact extended beyond the scoreboard.

“Bloody is not necessarily a natural goal scorer, but he’s a natural leader.  Let’s just say that he’s not healthy, so it’s even more inspiring to see what he’s done.”

Stienburg added that Bloodoff played in last year’s playoffs with a unprotected fractured hand, and was suffering from a similar injury this year.

“It’s almost like he doesn’t feel pain, so I don’t know if he’s not that bright, or he’s just that tough.”

Saint Mary’s lead was nearly undone by two successive third period penalties that allowed UNB sustained pressure in the Huskies end.  Peters was forced into his biggest stop of the night during the power play, making a brilliant kick save on a slapshot wired by UNB defenceman Matt Petgrave.

UNB’s comeback would be cut short by a late penalty to captain Chris Culligan, who was given a 10-minute misconduct for checking from behind with only two minutes remaining in the game.

What’s next

MacDougall lamented the loss, but insisted his young team would be back in the running next year.

“We had some great veteran players that put in great careers here at UNB, brought in a lot of championships to our program, and left a great legacy for our program.  For the new guys, they didn’t get that chance yet, but it leaves something to look forward to for next season.”

Seeking their 14th AUS title, the Saint Mary’s Huskies move on to play the Acadia Axemen in a best 2-of-3 series to determine the Subway AUS men’s hockey championship beginning on Thursday.