Saturday, February 29, 2020

AUS Final: Preview, Prediction, Poll

The U Sports #1 ranked University of New Brunswick Reds will be gunning for their third consecutive AUS championship when they face in the AUS #2 ranked Acadia Axemen in the best 2-of-3 AUS Final beginning Monday in Fredericton. The series will shift to Wolfville for game 2 on Wednesday night before returning to the AUC for game 3 on Friday, if necessary. All games are scheduled for a 7PM puck drop.

This will mark the 7th time these two teams have met in the playoffs since Gardiner MacDougall became head coach. The Reds won a quarter-final series in three games in 2001 before the Axemen swept UNB in back to back years in 2005 and 2006, the latter of which was a three game sweep in the AUS Final. The last three series have been all UNB, however, with a three game semi-final sweep in 2009, a three games to one semi-final victory in 2011, and a two game sweep in the 2015 AUS Final, which is the last time these two teams met in the playoffs.

The 2019-2020 edition of the Axemen rebounded from a tough season last year to prove to be a formidable opponent for much of the season. They began the year 9-1-0 and entered the Christmas break in 1st place with a 14-4-0 record, which they eventually improved to 17-4-0. However, as they have been prone to do in recent years, they stumbled down the stretch, going 2-5-2 to end up with a record of 19-9-2, 12 points behind the league-leading Reds. It was still enough to finish in second place and earn a first round playoff bye. Although they were guaranteed a spot at the University Cup as the tournament host, they earned their way by knocking off the Saint Mary's Huskies in four games.

The Axemen were especially tough on UNB this season, handing the Reds two of their four losses. The season series was incredibly even with both teams winning a two goal game in Wolfville (6-4 for Acadia on September 28th and 4-2 for UNB on January 31st) and a one goal game on home ice (a last minute Tyler Boland goal lifted the Reds to a 4-3 win at the AUC on November 9th while the Axemen answered with a 3-2 victory three weeks later). The only thing separating the two was UNB's 2-1 shoot-out win in Fredericton on January 9th in what was the most entertaining game on the season. Overall, each team scored 15 goals in the five games. This was the fewest goals UNB scored and the most they allowed against any opponent this season.

Offensively this season, Acadia ranked 3rd in the conference in goals scored (3.77 per game) and shots on goal (33.3 per game) and 4th on the power play (20.9%, although they received the second fewest opportunities in the league). Against UNB they only averaged 3.00 goals per game and 25 shots per game, but their power play clicked at 24% (6 for 25).

Individually, the Axemen boast a fairly balanced attack with 13 players registering double digit points. They were led by Cristiano Digiacinto, who tied for the league lead with 20 goals and was 8th in scoring with 37 points. Other players to watch include former AUS scoring champion Stephen Haroer (29 points in 23 games), second team all-star defenceman Garrett McFadden (28 points), Mason McCarty (20 points), Maurizio Colella (18 points), and Jack Flaman and Owen MacDonald (10 goals each). They will be without Jordy Stallard (23 points in 25 games), however, as head coach Darren Burns has already ruled him out for the series.

Much like Moncton, the strength of the Axemen comes in goal. Logan Flodell's league leading 16 wins and 0.918 save percentage, to go along with a 2.79 GAA (3rd), in over 1500 minutes in goal earned him AUS MVP honours this season as he was the biggest reason for their dramatic turnaround. Despite being out-shot on the season and giving up almost 34 shots per game, Acadia's 0.916 save percentage was best in the league and their 85 goals allowed placed behind only UNB's 56. Their penalty killing was 3rd at 82.4% on the season and was especially effective against UNB, holding the Reds number one ranked power play to three goals on 20 opportunities.

Overall, it is hard to bet against the Reds right now. While Acadia has been inconsistent since the beginning of the second half, UNB has been rolling to the tune of a current 18 game winning streak. Flodell may have had an outstanding season, and is a very deserving MVP, but if the Reds continue to pile up 35-40 shots per game, they are bound to score a few. On the flip side, UNB's defence limits shots on goal better than any team in the country, and their goaltending duo of Samuel Harvey/Rylan Parenteau are no slouches themselves, posting the second best save percentage in the AUS. During the five regular season meetings the great equalizer were the special teams, which Acadia held the advantage. It would be surprising to see that trend holding up into this series. Also, expect home ice advantage to be especially crucial in this series. Much has been made about UNB's struggles in Wolfville over the last decade, but it should be noted that the Reds are 32-0-3 at the AUC against the Axemen since the beginning of the 2006-2007 season.

PREDICTION: UNB in 3. The home team wins every game, giving the Reds their first AUS title on home-ice since 2013 and the #1 seed at the University Cup.

POLL: Who do you got?

Who wins?

UNB in 2
UNB in 3
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