HALIFAX (CIS) – The Alberta Golden Bears made it back-to-back CIS University Cup crowns with a 6-3 victory over the UNB Varsity Reds Sunday night at Scotiabank Centre.
University Cup website: www.universitycup.ca
Ian Herbers, the winning head coach, said it was about "finding a way" for his team. "That wasn't our best game I will say that for sure," he said during the on-ice celebration. "We scored some timely goals and our penalty kill was fantastic – a very good [UNB] power play that we held off the scoreboard."
"We would kind of come down, score a goal and get back that two-goal cushion. It wasn't our prettiest one, but we will take it that's for sure."
In a battle of the top-two ranked men's university hockey teams in Canada, Stephane Legault gave the No. 1 Golden Bears a 1-0 advantage at 2:09 of the opening period on his team's first shot of the game.
Off the rush, he took a cross-ice pass and beat Varsity Red goaltender David Shantz with a wrist shot. Jamie Crooks and Brett Ferguson collected the helpers.
On their first power play, which came less than five minutes into the game, Alberta came up empty.
Close to the seven-minute mark, the Varsity Reds garnered their first sustained pressure of the first 20 minutes, with the best opportunity coming from defenseman Adrian Robertson on a blast from the point, but Kurtis Mucha made the save.
Midway through the period, with UNB a man short, Alberta doubled their lead to 2-0. With the help of a screen from Ferguson, Golden Bear forward Jordan Hickmott beat Shantz five-hole with a slap shot at the 10-minute mark.
Canada West player of the year T.J. Foster assisted on the Hickmott marker, which came 29 seconds into the power play. It was only the third shot of the game for Alberta.
As the period wore on, UNB continued to generate more fore-check in the Alberta zone, while further testing Mucha and his defense, but without generating many shots.
Just under 15 minutes in, Varsity Red forward Rob Mignardi got a shot away from the top of the slot, but he could not beat the Golden Bear netminder.
With a late high-sticking penalty to Alberta captain Kruise Reddick, UNB would start the second period on the power play.
The Golden Bears outshot the Varsity Reds 6-3 in the first period.
To start the second, UNB came up with no shots on the remainder of their man-advantage.
Despite not breaking through on the power play, the Varsity Reds ramped up their offense, with Tyler Carroll's wrap-around attempt coming out front to team captain Cam Critchlow, who had his quick shot deflected wide.
Shortly after, at 4:51, UNB went back to the power play after Critchlow drew a penalty against Golden Bear forward Johnny Lazo after making a great puck-handling move just inside the Alberta blue line.
With a stout penalty kill, Alberta maintained its one-goal advantage, while not allowing any shots during the UNB man-advantage.
The Varsity Reds had a couple golden opportunities while short-handed to tie the contest. With Matt Petgrave in the penalty box, UNB forward Boudens stole the puck from Ferguson just inside his own blue line. He raced down the wing to the Golden Bear zone before ripping a hard shot on the forehand, but Mucha made a great save with his left shoulder. On a subsequent rush, Taylor MacDougall crossed the Alberta blue line and rifled a shot that rang off the inside of the left goal post.
For the next few minutes, the top two teams in the nation went end to end, but neither team could get on the scoreboard, with several rushes drawing gasps from the crowd. The defensive play was equally as sharp as the teams' respective offenses.
On back-to-back UNB power plays, including a two-man advantage for five seconds, the defending national champions were stellar. The Varsity Reds had no dangerous opportunities to beat Mucha.
"Huge, it was huge," Reddick, who was named a tournament all-star and MVP, said of the consecutive penalty kills.
"The guys all stuck together; they were blocking shots, getting pucks deep. It was a total team effort and I am so proud of this team," he added.
Special teams were crucial, as is the case in most championship battles, with Alberta going 2-for-5 with the man-advantage, while UNB was scoreless in seven power play attempts.
With less than four seconds remaining in the second period, the Golden Bears doubled their lead to 3-1 and silenced the pro-UNB crowd on a marker by Lazo. Levko Roper made a spinning feed from the boards to the front of the net, which Lazo put top shelf over Shantz's right shoulder.
Shots on goal in the period – Alberta had four, while UNB collected three – were not indicative of the action and pace of play.
Just under three minutes into the third period, Shantz made a couple great saves to keep UNB within two goals, including one on Travis Toomey from point-blank range in the slot. The Golden Bears also hit a goal post by the five-minute mark.
In the first six minutes, Alberta had the only six shots of the third period.
During four-on-four action a short time later, Lazo sped into the UNB zone on the rush, but Shantz snagged his backhander with the glove hand.
UNB could not get the equalizer on a power play shortly after the Maillet marker, with the best chance of the two minutes coming off the stick of Legault of Alberta, who broke in shorthanded and got a dangerous backhand shot away, but Shantz made the save.
With UNB serving a too-many-man on the ice penalty, Alberta regained their two-goal lead when Reddick took a Thomas Carr feed and scored from the slot through a maze of bodies. Jordan Rowley collected the other assist.
"I found some space in the slot. I don't know what was going through my head but I was able to score," Reddick said.
At 15:50, Adrian Robertson cut the lead to 4-3 with an unassisted goal that eluded Mucha as Fraser provided a screen for the Varsity Reds. Maillet, with his second point, provided an assist.
With the Varsity Reds on a late power play, UNB turned it over in the neutral zone. Two Golden Bears took off the other way, with Ferguson feeding Koper on a two-on-none, who beat Shantz to make it 5-3.
With 1:49 remaining, Rowley gave the Golden Bears a 6-3 advantage with an unassisted empty-net tally.
Six different players scored for Alberta in the title match-up. "That's the way it has been all season long," Herbers said.
"We haven't relied on one line all year long or one set of defensemen; that's just the character of our room – the work ethic, the leadership. We have a great group of young men and I am very proud of them. They have had an extremely good year – pulling together and finding ways to win."
Although the Golden Bears are repeat champions, Herbers noted this year's club was a "completely different team."
"We learned that right away at the beginning of the year. We knew we were just not going to come in [and repeat]. We knew we had to go out and earn it," he said.
Herbers said the Golden Bears were "pushed" during the pre-season. "Teams and people were questioning our program again because we lost a couple against some opponents. But, when we figured it out and got things rolling. We had a couple blips and we were pushed by some of our Canada West teams, which made us better and we need to be pushed …
"When we are determined, we are very tough to play against," he added.
Murray of the Varsity Reds, a tournament all-star, said the loss hurt.
"It is heartbreaking to lose like this in the final game of the year, but we have to be ready for next year. We know where we want to be; we want to be back on this ice. We want to be doing what those guys are doing right," he added, gesturing to the Golden Bear celebration on the other end of the ice.
When asked about turning points in the game, Murray said "I don't really know where it got away."
"We battled hard until the very end. They have a very good team over there; they are coached very well. They just outplayed us tonight," he added.
UNB bench boss Gardner MacDougall, the CIS coach of the year, described the season as "an exciting journey for the group."
"It probably wasn't the start we wanted, but I think that's part of playing in a national championship game; it was a first-time experience for a lot of our guys," he said.
"I thought we hung around; we hung around. It maybe wasn't the best effort we had, but give full credit to our opponent as well." Talking about how his team "clawed back" throughout the game, he described this year's Varsity Reds as a "pretty special group."
Alberta outshot UNB 24-9 in the game.
Mucha made six saves for the win, while Shantz turned aside 18 shots in the loss.
Joining Murray and Reddick on the tournament all-star team were Guelph Gryphon goaltender Andrew D'Agostini, Golden Bear defenseman Jesse Craige and forward Jordan Hickmott, along with Varsity Red forward Cam Braes.
With files from Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
Photo courtesy of Brian Smith.