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CIS AUS preview: Saint Mary’s looking to defend conference title

Huskies captured first conference title since 2010

Saint Mary’s went on to take bronze in the CIS Championships
Jeff Harper/Metro

Atlantic University Sport sent two teams the the CIS championships last year, while Saint Mary’s took third place in the playoffs and will be hoping the replicate that success in the 2016-17 season.

While last season’s conference champion Saint Mary’s seems set for another run at the CIS title, the closeness between the conference’s top teams means that a battle between Saint Mary’s, Moncton and St. Thomas is almost inevitable with just three points separating the teams last season. While Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier will look to move closer to the top of the table, Dalhousie and UPEI will rely on their new young talent as they hope to reach the playoffs and make a run at the championship.

Saint Mary’s

After coming off a bumper 2015-16 season with a 17-6-1 record that led them to the top of the conference, St. Mary’s took bronze in the CIS championships for the program’s first-ever third-place finish.

Fourth-year forward Breanna Lanceleve will be returning after an AUS-leading 28 point season that earner her a spot on the CIS Second All-Canadian Team. Goalie sensation Rebecca Clark looks to improve on a stellar first season that saw her named the AUS Rookie of the Year with a .914 save percentage and a place on the CIS All-Rookie Team.

The Huskies’ toughest matchup this season will again be against Université de Moncton. The two teams finished first and second in their conference; all four of their games were decided by a single point, including two that went to overtime.

Moncton

After two consecutive second-place finishes in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Moncton goes into this season hoping at long last to clinch the AUS championship.

It could be a difficult task with 2015-16’s CIS First Canadian Team goaltender Emilie Bouchard leaving the team after four seasons. However, goaltender Gabrielle Forget steps into the starter's role after recording a .927 save percentage last season, the conference’s third-best behind Bouchard and St. Francis Xavier's Sojung Shin. If her improvement continues, she’ll set herself up for an impressive season as the backstop of the team.

On the front end, forward Marie-Pier Corriveau finished 2015-16 with 22 points. Her offensive prowess will be needed once again if the Aigles Bleus want to achieve their goal.

Moncton’s toughest matchups will be against fellow top-of-the-table teams Saint Mary's and St. Thomas. Wins against those teams are a must if they wish to finally capture the conference championship and proceed through to the CIS Women's Hockey Championship.

St. Thomas

After their first trip to the CIS Women's Hockey Championship last year, St. Thomas will be seeking to improve on their 16-7-1 conference record that left them in third place, only two points behind the conference champions.

Captain Kelty Apperson comes off a season in which she was named Conference MVP and put up 26 points in 24 games; the forward looks to lead her team to another shot at the National Championships. Apperson also spent her summer at the Canadian Women's National Team Development Camp as one of several AUS athletes invited to attend.

Joining Apperson on the team will be top 2015-16 rookie Jessie McCann, who tallied 12 points and 20 penalty minutes to become one of the CIS’s top figures on the blue line. Her play earned her a spot on the CIS All-Rookie team and the CIS Second All-Canadian team during the past season.

Adding first-year forward Rahel Michielin to the lineup should provide some additional firepower to an already explosive forward group. Michielin brings elite level playing experience after having been a member of the Swiss National Team for the past four years.

Similar to Moncton, St Thomas’s most important games will be against the two teams that only just finished above them in the standings last season. With only three points separating these top three teams last season every game will matter, but particularly the ones they play against each other.

Mount Allison

Last season’s leading scorer Kara Anthony will be returning to play alongside 2015-16 breakout rookie Heather Richards. Between them the pairing put up 37 points and over 130 shots on goal in the 24-game season stretch that led Mount Allison to a 11-13 record.

However, without last year’s senior defenseman Emily Van Diepen, all eyes will be on the returning members of the defensive corps to see how their blue line structure will shake out. Junior Rosie Heffernan certainly looks like she could be the woman for the job; she led the defense in scoring last season with 10 points, however the third-year student still has room to improve if she wants to become one of the defensive dynamites of the league. Rookie Oryssya Ellis will also be a key addition to the Mounties’ defense, having represented Prince Edward Island at the Canada Games last year.

Mount Allison’s most difficult games this season will be against the top teams in the conference. However, matchups against similarly-ranked St. Francis Xavier will also prove to be must-win games if Mount Allison wants to establish themselves more firmly within the conference.

St. Francis Xavier University

St. Francis will be looking to return to their 2014-15 division-leading form after coming out of the past season with just 9 wins.

The return of veterans Daley Oddy and Kara Power, who scored 20 and 19 points last season respectively, should contribute to a higher quality offense on what is already a fast team. However, without the constant defensive presence of Jenna Pitts, St. Francis will be looking towards their freshman defense, including Lindsey Donovan and Santana Gravelle. Donovan spent time over the summer with Oddy at the Canadian Women's National Team Development Camp, while Gravelle is coming off a 16-point season with the Regina Rebels.

While St. Francis struggled last season against conference juggernauts St Mary's and Moncton, they will also need to watch their matchups against similarly ranked Mount Allison and seek to capitalize on those opportunities.

Dalhousie

After only just securing a place in the AUS playoff berth last season, Dalhousie will be looking to improve their place in the standings after finishing 2015-2016 with a 9-14-1 record. With a strong group of young players making up almost half their ranks, including six rookies and five second-years, Dalhousie will be looking to improve this season, spurred on by the young enthusiasm of their team.

With top forward Sarah Robichaud graduating after spending five years and 106 games as a Tiger, Lisa Maclean will be the team's highest returning scorer after putting up 15 points last season. Defenseman Laura Brooks returns for her fifth year to provide a veteran presence on the blue line after putting up a career-high 9 points last season. Brooks scored two game-winning goals, including one in the season’s final weeks against UPEI that helped to secure Dalhousie the coveted final playoff spot.

First-year forward Danika Phillips will also called upon to provide some offensive firepower after tallying 18 points and captaining the Barrie Jr. Sharks of the PWHL to the playoffs last season. However, all six new players be expected to step up as Dalhousie looks to have a better season than the previous few.

While no matchup will be easy, those against UPEI and StFX will prove to be particularly important if they wish to make the playoffs for a second year running.

UPEI

After finishing last in the conference with a 6-15-3 record, UPEI are very much in the rebuild stage with nine of their 25 players being first-years and a further five being seconds. UPEI will be a very young team this year as the fight to make it back into the playoff ranks.

One of the returning players will be fifth-year goaltender Marie-Soleil Deschenes, who recorded the second-most saves of any goaltender in the conference last year. In front of her will be defenseman Emma Martin, who led the UPEI defense corps in shots and points while having the lowest number of penalty minutes.

The crop of new faces on defense includes Caroline Daoust from Saint Laurent's Patriotes of the CEGEP, and Breah MacEachern of the Ontario Hockey Academy’s U20 Gold Team.

No matchup will be easy for UPEI, especially those against St Mary’s and Moncton. However, if they can aim to pick up points against similarly ranked teams, they should have a decent shot at playoffs.