The St. F.X. X-Men are back-to-back Atlantic University Sport (AUS) hockey champions.
After rallying from a two-goal deficit, the Blue and White secured the title with a dramatic 5-4 victory over the rival UNB Varsity Reds, March 8, to sweep their best-of-three final series.
For the second consecutive season, the X-Men swept the Varsity Reds for the title, with both closing wins coming on home ice.
“This is unbelievable – I am so excited about how well we played tonight,” Chase Marchand said during the on-ice celebration.
“Everybody bought in and did everything that they could to win. I am just so proud of our team right now.”
The AUS first and all-rookie team goaltender also garnered the most valuable player award for the playoffs.
“It is great, but I am not even thinking about that,” Marchand said of the personal accolade.
“This is such a great group of guys and we battled so hard every day.”
Marchand made 31 saves in the series’ clincher, while turning aside 49 shots, including 17 in the third period, in the X-Men’s 2-1 road win in Game 1.
With him between the pipes, St. F.X. skated to a 7-0 record in the playoffs, including series’ sweeps of the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus and Acadia Axemen.
“It was a pretty gritty effort – being down two goals we didn’t give up,” X-Men captain Eric Locke said, as he donned an AUS championship cap.
“We came back – scored three and got another one and were able to hold on.”
He was asked about the difference in the UNB series.
“They have a great team, but I just think that we wanted it. We won last year; we know what it feels like – it is a great feeling – and we wanted the same this year,” Locke said.
Seconds after the final horn, veteran head coach Brad Peddle said it was difficult to find words to describe the feeling of winning another title on home ice.
“There are a lot of emotions running through us – back-to-back championships, at home, are tough to beat,” he added.
Peddle said the X-Men’s “will to find a way” was the difference against UNB.
“Down 3-1 – battled back and battled back – I am just so proud of this group,” he added.
The X-Men finished the title-winning game with four straight goals, but the visitors opened and completed the scoring.
In the first period, at 16:04, AUS regular season MVP Philippe Maillet scorched a wrist shot over the shoulder of Marchand, with Chris Clapperton and Cam Braes collecting the assists.
Only 25 seconds later, X-Men sophomore defenseman Max Iafrate tied the game, on assists from Locke and Michael Clarke.
The teams were deadlocked 1-1 after the opening stanza.
In the second period, the Varsity Reds’ quick strike offense scored twice in the first 90 seconds.
At 1:02, on a quick counter attack, Philippe Halley kept puck possession on a two-on-one and beat Marchand. Mark Simpson and Rob Mignardi assisted.
Just 19 seconds later, Maillet, with his second of the game, scored unassisted to make it 3-1.
At 3:03, X-Men forward Holden Cook sliced the UNB lead in half, notching an unassisted goal of his own.
At 9:25, Sam Studnicka broke in on his off-wing and uncoiled a blast that found the back of the net to tie the contest.
Veteran defensemen Craig Duininck and Jagger Dirk drew the assists.
The X-Men took their first lead, at the 11:27 mark, while on a 5-on-3 man advantage. Junior forward Adam Stevens gobbled up a deflected pass from Kristoff Kontos and made no mistake. Dirk chipped in the other assist on the go-ahead marker.
St. F.X. took a 4-3 advantage to the locker room after two periods.
With the Varsity Reds pressing for the equalizer, the X-Men were able to widen their lead, with 7:01 remaining in regulation.
Off the rush, defenseman Aaron Hoyles fed Clarke, who sizzled a shot high over the blocker of Etienne Marcoux to make it 5-3.
“We were up a goal and I knew that UNB were pressing for a goal, so they were pushing guys forward,” Clarke said, in describing the tally that turned out to be the game-winner.
“So, when I saw that Hoyles grabbed the puck and we had numbers, I just skated hard to the middle of the ice. I think he was about to dump in, but I yelled at him; he made a good play and put it right on my tape.
“I was just in on goal, all of a sudden, and ripped the shot as hard as I could and, luckily, it went in,” he added.
Clarke described the back-to-back titles, in his first two seasons, as “a heckuva feeling.”
“We battled all year long – the early morning practices, hard skates and all the injuries and stuff,” he said.
“It is just an unbelievable feeling to share this with these guys.”
At 17:32, Clapperton went top shelf, off a feed from Christopher Caissy, to pull the defending national champions within one goal, but they could get no closer.
Maillet, with two goals, was named player of the game for the Varsity Reds, while Duininck earned the nod for the X-Men.
A sell-out crowd – 2,050 fans – witnessed the championship win at the Keating Centre.
“It is awesome – the crowd was incredible. You think, after last year, it might be your only chance to win it at home, so to do it two years in a row is just an unbelievable experience,” Locke said, describing the accomplishment as “amazing.”
Clarke said the hometown support was huge.
“When you get the crowd behind you and hear the cheers, it gives you so much energy,” he added.
It may not be the last time these teams face-off this season – both will participate in the 2017 University Cup, which will take place March 16-19 at the Aitken Centre in Fredericton.
“We are going to celebrate this [AUS] win for a bit, for sure, and then get back to work,” Locke said, when asked to look ahead to that tournament.
“We will have, hopefully, three games in three days, so it is a grind and, hopefully, we can pull through.”
The X-Men’s seeding and first-game opponent were unavailable at press time.
Last season, the Varsity Reds skated to a 3-1 win over the X-Men in the national championship game at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.