By: Dwayne Tingley
Acadia Axemen captain Liam Maskaant isn't looking too far ahead.
The Axemen will host the U SPORTS national men's hockey championship in mid-March, but Maskaant hasn't given it much thought.
"We're going to be the host team, but we want to prove that we belong there, and we just want to keep improving every day," said the 25-year-old defenceman from Clinton, Ont.
"It helps to know that we will be in the tournament," he added. "We just want to play our best hockey, win the AUS championship and then think about the tournament. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
As the AUS men's hockey conference reaches its month-long mid-season break, the Axemen appear to be focused on the task at hand. They top the standings with a 14-4-0 record for 28 points, two points ahead of the two-time defending champion UNB Reds, who are 13-4-0.
"We had a real solid first half," said Axemen head coach Darren Burns. "We feel our guys came prepared to start the season the right way. I feel, though, this is the tightest the conference has ever been and anyone can beat you on any given night."
The Saint Mary's Huskies (10-8-0) and Moncton Aigles Bleus (8-6-4) share third place with 20 points.
Rounding out the standings are the StFX X-Men (7-9-2, 16 points), UPEI Panthers (6-8-3, 15 points) and Dalhousie Tigers (4-12-2, 10 points).
Maskaant believes the competitive nature of the AUS brings out the best in the Axemen, who have outscored their opponents 70-55 and enter the break on a four-game winning streak.
"We've played our best hockey against the best teams in the standings and we lost some tough games against teams lower in the standings," said Maskaant, who is in his fifth and final season with the Axemen.
"It boosts our confidence to get those big wins against the best teams, but it also shows you can't take any nights off in our league," said the former Kitchener Ranger. "Our guys hold each other accountable so we don't let each other take nights off.
"Our depth means that when some guys might have an off night, we don't miss a beat. Someone else steps up. Everyone on the team feels the same way."
Burns said every player on the roster contributed to the team's first-half success.
"We need to make sure we keep our focus over the break and be ready to start the second half the right way," the coach noted. "The intensity skyrockets in the second half and we need to be prepared for this."
The Axemen and the two highest-finishing teams in the conference will compete at the U SPORTS championship March 12-15 at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.
Reds coach Gardiner MacDougall, who has led UNB to seven U SPORTS titles, including three of the last four, said the Atlantic conference has more parity than any time he can remember during his 20-year tenure.
"There are a lot of teams in the race," said MacDougall, a three-time winner of the U SPORTS coach of the year award. "You never know who is going to win. Teams are so even that it's hard to say some games are upsets. Every team can put wins on the board."
MacDougall said his team's depth, which includes two outstanding goaltenders, should provide the difference down the stretch.
"We know what it takes to win at this level and that means everyone has to contribute and everyone has to play his role," he said. "We've got the players who can fill these roles."
The Reds will host the University of Windsor Lancers in an exhibition game as part of the Pete Kelly Christmas Challenge on Dec. 29 at the Aitken Centre in Fredericton.