AUS Hockey Keeps Getting Stronger

Could this be a breakout year for Benjamin Breault and the Dal Tigers?

CIS hockey has slowly and steadily been increasing its relevance on the Canadian hockey scene. More and more CHL graduates are seeking a way to keep playing hockey at a high level and choosing the CIS as the place to do it.

Friday night marks the start of the 2011-12 season in the AUS and once again there are multiple National Championship contenders in the Atlantic University Hockey Conference. It seems that everyone in the league has gotten better, making for greater parity and tougher competition on a nightly basis.

The University of New Brunswick will once again host this year’s National Championship, and would be favourites for the take it all, regardless of their guaranteed spot in the tourney. They’ll kick the season off against the school that was a goal away from claiming both the AUS Championship and a spot in the CIS National Championship final game, the St. Francis Xavier X-Men.

Both clubs have had minor turnover, but have made some quality additons and should once again be battling for a top spot in the conference.

Another perennial contender for both the conference, as well as the national title, the Saint Mary’s Huskies travel to Charlottetown to face the UPEI Panthers Friday night.

Saint Mary’s has lost a couple of key members of its blueline as Andrew Hotham has moved on, and All-Star David MacDonald will suit up for Halifax rival Dalhousie after transferring. The Huskies could experience some growing pains, but will still ice a competitve team.

The Panthers are looking to build on a solid year last year. UPEI got off to a great start that saw them competing for the league lead and being ranked in the Nation’s top ten. The Panthers have lost a number of key parts but will also welcome the additions of Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Nathan Moon and former P.E.I. Rocket captain Travis MacIsaac.

Acadia will rely heavily on last year’s top three scorers Andrew Clark, Jonathan Laberge and Jacob Dietrich and the return of most of their blueline core. The Axemen finished in the Top 10 last year, and will need their returning players to keep them in contention at the top of the standings. They’ll face the Moncton Blue Eagles in the season opener.

Moncton joins the the St. Thomas Tommies as teams looking to build their way out of the AUS basement. After difficult years, both are revamping their programs to try and compete with the elite of the conference. Unfortunately, that is not done quickly, and despite savvy moves such as STU bringing in Troy Ryan, it will likely be a tough year for both.

The team with the greatest potential to make a jump in the conference is the Dalhousie Tigers. After years playing a similar role to the Tommies and Blue Eagles, the Tigers managed to make the playoffs last year. They had some key victories late in the year against both the Huskies and the V-Reds.

As mentioned above, the Tigers have added veteran defencemen David MacDonald and also Zach Firlotte (over from Acadia) to immediately stablize the defence. Most of the offensive leaders are back for another year including top scorer Benjamin Breault.

The Tigers have a chance to make some noise and turn some heads, but it will still be a battle in a conference that has less and less separation. Each year it seems the gap between those at the top, and the ones trying to get there.

Check out the full AUS Hockey schedule here.

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