Despite the off-ice issues, the St. Francis Xavier and Acadia men’s hockey teams still have a playoff series to prepare for.
The Atlantic university rivals, whose last regular-season matchup resulted in a bench-clearing brawl Feb. 2 at Acadia Arena, will face each other in the best-of-three conference quarter-finals which begin Wednesday in Antigonish.
For head coaches Darren Burns of the Axemen and Brad Peddle of the X-Men and their respective clubs, their sole focus is on Game 1.
“We’re excited to get going, it’s the playoffs and in any sport, that’s what you play for,” Burns said in an interview Monday.
“Our guys are looking forward to getting back to playing some hockey and that’s what’s most important right now,” Peddle added.
“This is 100 per cent going to be about hockey. I can guarantee both teams are wanting to go onto the next round and are focused on doing whatever it takes to get there. It can’t be anything but hockey and that’s our approach.”
Burns, Peddle and 15 players were suspended by Atlantic University Sport for their involvement in the third-period brawl.
The head coaches and all but two players received two-game bans and served their suspensions last week as the regular season schedule wrapped up. St. F.X. defenceman Aaron Hoyles was handed five games while Acadia forward Cole Reginato earned a four-game suspension. Each will carry over into the playoffs.
Further sanctions are forthcoming as the AUS completes a secondary review process.
AUS executive director Phil Currie said in a text, “the reviews are with our Sport Chair and he is working through them with the understanding that there is a game Wednesday.”
Five players and three coaches — Peddle, Hoyles and forward Mark Tremaine from St. F.X. and Burns, Reginato, assistant coach Kris MacDonald and forwards Rodney Southam and Owen MacDonald from Acadia — are under review.
“We don’t know who’ll be in the lineup,” Peddle said. “But we’ll adjust accordingly if we need to later.”
The X-Men finished the regular season with a 15-12-3 record but head into the post-season having lost three straight.
In their two losses over the weekend — an 8-2 decision at the UNB Reds on Friday and a 4-1 setback at the UPEI Panthers on Saturday — the X-Men played with only 12 skaters.
The St. F.X. blue-line has especially been decimated. Already missing the steady Santino Centorame to injury, four defencemen including Hoyles were suspended. Forwards Adam Stevens and Matt Needham moved back to play defence.
“The guys this weekend were pros,” Peddle said. “They completely rallied around each other and everyone stepped up against two excellent hockey teams on back-to-back nights. Everyone was playing every second shift but they battled hard and, as crazy as this sounds, had some fun with it.
“Now it’s great to get some guys back. We’re not sure how many we’re getting back but getting some people back in the lineup will be a big help for us, particularly on defence.”
The Axemen, on the other hand, went through a period of adjustment with the addition of 14 freshmen to the 2018-19 roster.
For a team that has appeared in four of the last five U Sports national championships, it was odd to see Acadia finish in sixth place with a 10-17-3 mark. But the team features only two seniors — forward Kyle Farrell and defenceman Liam Maaskant — and had won three in a row before dropping its regular-season finale to the Moncton Aigles Bleus on Friday.
“We are an extremely young team but we try to play with energy and be a hard-working team,” Burns said. “Structure and playing good defensively will be paramount. We won’t make any excuses about how young we are. It’s just another new experience for us as a group.
“From a coaching standpoint, we have seen a lot of improvements and the playoffs are another challenge for us to get better. From September until now we are a much better team. We know the playoffs are another level and the pace is much quicker. But we’ve been much stronger in the second half.”
The series switches to Wolfville for Game 2 on Friday night, Feb. 15. If a third and deciding game is needed, it will be played Sunday evening at the Charles V. Keating Centre.
“It’s essentially a best-of-one,” Peddle said. “We have to focus on that first game. With a short series, one game makes an awful difference. There’s no room for short memories because whatever happens — whether it’s in the game or shift-to-shift — you have to quickly reset and go again because you don’t have the time to recover like you do in a five-game or seven-game series.”
“When you’re in a best-of-three series, things are magnified that much more,” Burns added. “There isn’t a large margin of error. But with our team, we have to focus on what we do well. We are a good skating team which works hard and plays with energy. But we’re up against a great opponent.”
The winner advances to either face first-place UNB or the No. 2 Saint Mary’s Huskies in the best-of-five semifinals. UNB and SMU each have a first-round bye.
The other quarter-final features fourth-ranked UPEI versus No. 5 Moncton. Game 1 is also Wednesday evening in Charlottetown before the series switches to Moncton on Friday.
- Acadia Axemen player takes responsibility for hockey brawl with St. F.X.
- AUS suspends 15 players, plus head coaches in wake of St. F.X.-Acadia hockey brawl
The AUS women’s hockey playoffs also begin this week.
Third-ranked Saint Mary’s will face No. 6 Moncton in a best-of-three quarter-final.
Game 1 is Friday evening at the Halifax Civic Arena, followed by Game 2 next Sunday afternoon in Moncton.
The other first-round series has the No. 4 UNB Reds against fifth-ranked UPEI. That quarter-final opens Thursday in Fredericton.
St. F.X. and the St. Thomas Tommies each have byes to the semifinals.