By: Monty Mosher
Gardiner MacDougall has been counting the days – literally – until his UNB Varsity Reds have a chance to make it three straight national titles.
As the host entry, the Varsity Reds have known all year, just as last year, that they would skate in the University Cup national men's hockey championship in Fredericton.
The Varsity Reds, seeded No. 1, begin their quest for an eighth U Sports banner beginning Thursday night against the No. 8 Concordia Stingers.
The fourth-seeded Brock Badgers take on the fifth-seeded St. Francis Xavier X-Men to begin the tournament on Thursday afternoon.
No. 2 Alberta Golden Bears take on No. 7 Acadia Axemen on Friday afternoon with No. 3 McGill Redmen against No. 6 Saskatchewan Huskies in the last quarter-final on Friday night.
Both semifinals are on Saturday with the games for bronze and gold on Sunday. Sportsnet 360 will broadcast the two semifinals and the championship game.
UNB had to replace nine players from last year's championship team, leaving the Varsity Reds a question mark within their own conference.
But they answered all of that with a 24-2-4 regular season and a 5-0 post-season, defeating the X-Men in straight games to reclaim the conference title they lost to the X-Men last year.
Some of the new faces but stepped into critical roles, notably conference top rookie Kris Bennett. He scored 18 goals and 20 assists in 30 games.
Veterans Chris Clapperton (16-17-33) and Stephen Anderson (16-15-31) also finished on the AUS top-10 scoring list.
This will be the fourth straight appearance for the Varsity Reds in the national championship tournament.
"We are indeed excited about the challenge in front of us for Thursday night," said MacDougall, whose team beat Saskatchewan 5-3 in last year's final at Aitken Centre. "We have known since September 1 that we will get to play the first period of nationals on home ice and we have had 196 days to prepare for this period."
While the winning has remained a constant, MacDougall is aware no two seasons, or teams, are alike.
"This year we have been greater than the sum of our parts," he said. "We rely on the relentless pace of our 12 forwards, team-first gritty D by our six defencemen and top-quality goaltending."
The X-Men saw their two-year reign atop the AUS ended by the Varsity Reds. St. F.X. is chasing a first national title since Danny Flynn got the team to the summit in 2004.
St. F.X. started last year's national championship with a 4-1 win over McGill, but fell hard in an 8-0 loss to Saskatchewan in the semifinals. They followed that with a 7-3 loss to Acadia for the bronze medal.
Brad Peddle led the X-Men to a 22-4-4 regular season, four points behind UNB for top spot.
Holden Cook (10-27-37) and Mike Clarke (17-17-34) led the offence, but goalie Chase Marchand was the big story, posting a 2.38 goals-against average to earn AUS most valuable player. He was the first goalie in 22 years to claim MVP honours.
"After losing a tough AUS final, we are looking forward to getting another chance at the national championship," Peddle said. "We were disappointed with our AUS final loss and hope the few days rest will allow us to reset and get healthy.
"We have several players who will now play in their third and fourth consecutive national championship and we will have to rely on their veteran experience to lead the way. It's a very unforgiving tournament with outstanding competition where you must be at your best each game to give yourself a chance to play another day. We have an excited group and are looking forward to the opportunity."
Acadia will be easy to overlook, making the Axemen dangerous. They were 18-10-2 in the regular season.
But the X-Men won a pair of one-goal decisions to force the Axemen into a sudden-death series with the Saint Mary's Huskies, who matched the Axemen in regular-season points. Acadia won the game to clinch the ticket to Fredericton 6-1.
Stephen Harper led all league scorers (14-32-46) with Boston Leier (15-24-39) in fourth. Kyle Farrell had 17 goals and 14 assists for a share of 10th with UNB's Anderson.
"We are very excited to get to Fredericton," said Axemen head coach Darren Burns. "We have been extremely impressed with the work ethic and how this team has come together. We had a very fragmented fist half with a lot guys not in the lineup.
"We felt it was fresh start beginning the second half. We endured a five-game losing streak before the playoffs, but it actually helped build character. It was extremely tough to get out of the AUS, even with three teams qualifying."
Acadia is after its first title since 1996.