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The gift of health

Declan Smith, a native of Upper South River, Antigonish County, has steadily improved with increased ice time in his freshman season with the St. F.X. X-Men. Bryan Kennedy
Declan Smith, a native of Upper South River, Antigonish County, has steadily improved with increased ice time in his freshman season with the St. F.X. X-Men. Bryan Kennedy - Corey LeBlanc

Full roster for second half fulfills Christmas wish

ANTIGONISH, N.S. —

ANTIGONISH - If Brad Peddle had an opportunity to sit on Santa’s lap in the lead-up to Christmas, what would have been at the top of his wish list?     
Well, for fans of the St. F.X. X-Men hockey team, it would have been for improved health to a depleted roster.     
Several players with the defending U Sports’ bronze medalists missed chunks of time in the first half of the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) regular season.     
“We certainly battled through a lot of adversity,” the veteran X-Men bench boss said, when asked for an assessment of the team’s performance in the first half of the conference campaign.  
At the holiday break, the White and Blue sported a 7-9-2 mark, for 16 points, which placed them fifth in the AUS.     
“I am really proud of our guys,” Peddle said, noting the X-Men lineup, because of injuries, only included three forward lines during the month or so before Christmas. 
Nevertheless, the former X-Men defenseman did not use the bite of the injury bug as the reason for the team’s sub-500 record.     
“We can’t use that as an excuse – we didn’t play our best,” Peddle said.     
With that, he praised the team for “staying in the fight,” while noting there were several games in which there were only eight forwards and four or five ‘D’ on the bench – a visual akin to a smile with missing teeth.     
“Because of our experience, there has been no panic with this team. We knew, once we got healthy, that we will be able to make a run,” Peddle added.     
During the challenging first half, he said several players stepped up, including fifth-year captain Mark Tremaine.     
“He has been outstanding,” Peddle said, noting the Dartmouth native continues to be “the heartbeat of our team.”     
Peddle added he has played extended minutes because of the narrowed roster.     
He explained several players have “elevated their game” – with increased ice time and otherwise – including defensemen Cole MacDonald and Bailey Webster.     
There have also been newcomers who benefitted from receiving more ice time, including freshman forward Declan Smith.     
“He has really benefitted; it has helped so much with his transition [from major junior],” Peddle said of the Upper South River, Antigonish County native.     
And there has been the “exceptional” play of veteran forward Bryson Cianfrone, who leads the U Sports’ scoring race with 29 points.     
“He has been one of the best players in the country,” Peddle said.     
While those have been some of the X-Men who “carried the load,” he expects that strain to lessen with the return of Sam Studnicka, Matt Needham and Adam Holwell, who missed several games in the first half.     
With the turn to 2020, the White and Blue expects to sport a full lineup for, as Peddle described it, “the most important” stretch of the season.     
During a recent interview, in the midst of a three-day stretch of practices after the holidays, he noted the benefit of having four full lines and seven defensemen in the mix.     
“The way you practice, ultimately, affects how you play,” Peddle said.     
One of the keys for the X-Men – even through the struggles earlier this season – has been their veteran experience, including a slew of players who have appeared in three consecutive national championship tournaments.     
“We know what it takes to win this time of year,” Peddle noted.     
When it comes to winning over the rest of the season, he explained there has to be considerable improvement defensively; only the last-place Dalhousie Tigers have surrendered more goals (86) than the X-Men (74).     
“We have given up way too many,” Peddle said.     
He added the X-Men must play better “on both ends of the ice.”     
“We have to get back to playing our game – what makes us successful,” Peddle noted.     
As for special teams, the penalty kill has to improve, while the power play must be “more consistent.”     
“We have been able to score 5-on-5 but we have to give up fewer goals,” Peddle said.     
The X-Men returned to action over the weekend, hosting the Université de Moncton Aigles Bleus and UNB Reds at the St. F.X. Keating Centre.     Results of those match-ups were unavailable at press time.     
This weekend, St. F.X. will welcome the Acadia Axemen Friday, Jan. 10 before heading to Halifax the next night (Jan. 11) to face the rival Saint Mary’s Huskies.     
Puck drop for both games is 7 p.m.     
“It is extremely tight,” Peddle said of the AUS, noting it may even be more competitive than usual in a traditionally battled-tested conference.     “It is going to be up for grabs,” he predicted of the race for a conference crown.

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