Thursday, October 25, 2012

V-Reds Back On The Road This Weekend

The University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds are back in Nova Scotia for the second consecutive weekend, beginning Friday night with a first place showdown against the Acadia Axemen in Wolfville. Game time is scheduled for 7PM.

The V-Reds (3-1-0 conference record, 8-2-0 overall vs. CIS teams) reclaimed the top spot in the latest CIS rankings after a successful road trip last week in which they defeated both Saint Mary's and St. FX. The Axemen (3-1-0, 5-3-1), meanwhile, made their first appearance in the top-10 since January, coming in at 7th.

KEY STATS: The V-Reds are once again among the top scoring teams in the AUS (3rd with 3.75 goals per game), as well as being the stingiest (1st with 2.25 goals allowed per game). However, one area in which they need to improve is getting the puck on net. Through 4 games UNB is averaging only 27.5 shots per game, a far cry from the 36.0 they averaged last year. This has been offset thus far by an improved shooting percentage of 13.6% (4th), compared to 11.9% and 11.1% the previous two years, and power play, operating at a league-leading 29.2% after seasons of 17.6% and 18.7%. They are also leading the conference in fewest shots allowed per game (21.0) and are 2nd in save percentage (0.903).

Acadia put together another solid season last year with a 16-10-2 record, although a late slide (1-4-1 in last 6 games) cost them a chance at a first round bye and they instead had to settle for 5th place overall. They pushed UPEI in their first round playoff series as all 3 games were one goal affairs, but they eventually fell 6-5 in overtime in the deciding game to the hometown Panthers. It marked their 8th straight year in the postseason and 4th straight year with at least 14 wins.

The Axemen also find themselves near the top of many categories. They lead the league in goals per game (4.75), shots per game (40.0), and penalty minutes (only 11.0 per game), and are 3rd in penalty killing (84.6%). They have struggled in areas as well, though. Their power play ranks last in the conference with a 11.1% success rate (after being 3rd at 19.3% last season) and their save percentage is also the worst in the league at 0.860, despite ranking 4th with 3.00 goals allowed per game. This is attributed to the fact that the Axemen only give up 21.25 shots per game (2nd, only 0.25 behind UNB).

HEAD TO HEAD: This is the first meeting of the season between UNB and Acadia. In an odd scheduling quirk the two teams will play three games against one another in the first half, with games also scheduled for November 17th at the AUC and December 1st back in Wolfville. Perhaps even stranger, the season series will wrap up on the first day of the second half with a tilt January 4th at the AUC.

The V-Reds have had an impressive run of success against the Axemen in recent years, especially considering Acadia is usually on of the better teams in the AUS. UNB has gone 18-1-1 in regular season play, 1-0 in exhibition games, and 6-1 in the playoffs over the previous 5 seasons against the Axemen, for an overall record of 25-2-1. This includes a 17 game winning streak - 13 regular season, 1 exhibition, 3 playoff - that spanned from November 2nd, 2007 until November 26th, 2010. UNB has currently won 17 consecutive games against Acadia at the AUC.

LAST SEASON: The V-Reds earned 7 out of a possible 8 points against the Axemen last season. On October 28th Travis Fullerton picked up the shutout in a 3-0 UNB win. On November 12th the Axemen would rally from a 4-2 second period deficit to take a 5-4 lead in the third period, only to see Bretton Stamler tie the game 27 seconds later. The two teams would go to a shootout with Acadia eventually prevailing 6-5 after Stamler and Luke Gallant missed on their attempts, while both Axemen shooters converted against goaltender Matt Davis. The two teams would meet again on January 27th in the annual "Pink in the Rink" game and Chris Culligan (4 assists) would lead UNB to a 7-1 romp. The next game, on February 3rd, was more evenly matched but the result was the same as the V-Reds emerged with a 3-2 road win.

RECENT GAMES: The Varsity Reds rebounded from a 5-2 loss against Moncton two weekends ago to record a pair of impressive road victories last weekend. They defeated Saint Mary's 4-0 on Friday night behind the impressive goaltending of Dan LaCosta (26 saves) and St. FX 4-2 on Saturday night thanks to three power play goals and a big night from Chad Denny (1 goal, 2 assists).

Acadia, who also sport a 3-1-0 record on the young season, are coming off of a very successful weekend of their own. On Friday night they spoiled St. Thomas' first game at their new rink with a dominating 7-1 win over the Tommies, in which they held a 37-13 advantage in shots. The next night they faced some stiffer competition when they traveled to Moncton to face Les Aigles Bleu. The Axemen gave up a tying goal in the third period but rebounded to win 3-2 in a shootout, with rookie Brett Thompson scoring the winner.

The Axemen split their first two games of the season. They dropped their home opener 5-4 to St. FX, despite holding a 43-14 lead in shots (including 19-0 in the final period), before rallying from a 4-1 second period deficit the next night to defeat Dalhousie in Halifax by the same 5-4 count.

Acadia went 3-3-1 during the pre-season. They opened their exhibition schedule by hosting the Don Wells Tournament, during which they lost 6-5 in OT to Carleton and 3-2 to St. FX. This was by a pair of wins the next weekend - 5-2 over Queens and 5-0 against UQTR- before suffering a 5-2 loss to Moncton. The Axemen then traveled to the United States and split a pair of games against NCAA competition (6-2 loss to RPI, 2-0 win against Quinnipiac).

WHO TO WATCH FOR ON ACADIA: The Axemen return the majority of their line-up from last season, including leading scorer and CIS player of the Year Andrew Clark (15 goals, 24 assists) and First Team All-Canadian defenceman Christopher Owens (10g, 19a). Their next 7 leading scorers are also back, led by Liam Heelis (8g, 14a), Jonathan Laberge (8g, 11a), Spencer Jezegou (8g, 9a), Michael Ward (7g, 9a), and Alex Beaton (8g, 7a). Among the 6 players who are not returning the biggest loss, points-wise, is Nicholas Chouinard (10 points). The other 5 players only accounted for 4 goals and 14 assists last year. Replacing them are a number of top recruits, with forwards Brett Thompson (32g, 38a in OHL last year) and Mike Cozzola (1.03 points per game in OHL career), swing-man Travis Randall (16 points last year in QMJHL), and defenceman Colin Archer (sat out last year, 30 points in last WHL season) being the biggest names. After a couple of years struggling to score the Axemen should have no problem finding the back of the net this season.

The Axemen also return both of their goalies from last year in Evan Mosher and Peter DiSalvo. Although Mosher played the majority of games last season (1230 minutes to 476 for DiSalvo) he has struggled in the early going this year (2 games, 5 goals on 12 shots in 33 minutes), giving DiSalvo an opportunity that he has seized for the time being, posting a 1.91 GAA and .905 save percentage in 4 games.

WHO TO WATCH FOR ON UNB: Much like last Saturday night it will be interesting to see who is in net for the V-Reds. While LaCosta played great in both of his starts last weekend Travis Fullerton has had great success against Acadia in the past, posting three shutouts and two playoff series wins against the Axemen in his career.

It will also be interesting to see how UNB fares on the olympic-sized ice surface that Acadia features. After looking slow against Moncton two weeks ago the V-Reds were much better last week, but a group of highly skilled forwards like Acadia possesses, playing with more space than the V-Reds are used to, presents a whole new challenge for UNB. While the V-Reds have adjusted well in recent years - 10-2-1 in last 13 games in Wolfville - it should be noted that 7 out of the previous 9 games have been decided by a single goal.

Cam Braes is another player to keep an eye on. After recording a goal and an assist in the season opener Braes has been held off the score sheet for the last 3 games. Expect him to get back on track, maybe as soon as this weekend, especially if Chris Culligan is back in the line-up centering the top line.

FOLLOW ALONG: The game will be web-cast here. You can also follow UNBHockey on Twitter for updates.

St. FX at St. Thomas
Saint Mary's at Moncton
UPEI at Dalhousie