By John DeCoste
Head coach Darren Burns is “obviously pleased” with the first-half performance of his Acadia hockey Axemen, but says it’s really only a start.
The Axemen completed the pre-Christmas portion of the season first in the AUHC with a 12-3-1 record, and were ranked #2 in the most recent CIS hockey rankings.
“I thought we’ve played pretty well so far,” Burns said, but stressed that the AUHC standings “are very close, so it’s a game to game thing” in terms of not only gaining first place, but also managing to stay there.
At the same time, he stressed, “it’s only half a season in a very competitive conference” that is very possibly the strongest in the country.
“I figured we could be a upper-echelon team, and we’re right there,” he said, given the players the Axemen had returning and those he had recruited, but at the same time, “you can’t rest on your laurels in this league.”
Acadia’s win total includes two victories each over UNB, Moncton, UPEI, Dalhousie and St. Thomas and single wins over St. F.X. and Saint Mary’s.
The losses came at the hands of Saint Mary’s (in a shootout), St. F.X., UNB and UPEI.
Statistically, Acadia has scored 55 goals in 16 games (3.44 goals per game), third in the conference behind UNB and Saint Mary’s. Their 34 goals allowed are tops in the conference (UNB is second-best with 40 goals against).
The Axemen penalty killing has been outstanding, allowing just nine goals on 70 opposition power plays for an 87.1 success rate.
The power play, on the other hand, was arguably the team’s main weakness, with just 11 goals on 84 power play opportunities for a success rate of just 13.1.
“The power play hasn’t always been where it needs to be,” Burns said. “I don’t think we’re a highly offensive team, but our power play should be better considering our record and where we’re ranked.”
The Axemen have spent the past seven weeks in the CIS Top-10, twice - including their current ranking - making it as high as #2.
Burns doesn’t pay much attention to rankings, since everything can change from week to week, but stressed there are a “bunch of teams“ in the AUHC as good as anyone in the country. Acadia, UNB, Saint Mary’s, St. F.X., Moncton and UPEI have all spent time in the CIS Top-10 this season.
“It’s whoever is playing well at a given time,” Burns said.
Burns added the league is difficult to predict since “a lot of teams play different styles,” and equally well. “You need to take it a day at a time, and a week at a time.”
At the break, Andrew Clark led the Axemen with nine goals and 21 points, having overtaken Christopher Owens when Owens (6-13-19) missed the last game of the first half due to injury.
Rookie Brett Thompson had seven goals and eight assists for 15 points in 16 games. Mike Cazzola (4-10-14), another rookie, and Dustin Ekelman (7-7-14) were tied for fourth in team scoring.
“We’ve gotten what we expected from our first-year players, but I have to be honest, Cazzola and Thompson have been better than we expected,” Burns said. “They’re both offensive guys, but I like their ‘compete level’. It’s not necessarily a surprise (how well they have played), but it is nice to see.”
Both Travis Randell and Dylan Anderson have had really strong first halves, he added, and have adapted to the league faster than would have been expected.
“We’re a team that needs to be really good defensively, with a strong forecheck. If there’s one thing that describes our team, it’s that they love the game, play smart and have a strong work ethic.”
Burns wasn’t surprised at all that Clark is enjoying another solid season. The 2011-2012 CIS Player of the Year “is obviously a top player, but he’s also an unsung hero who does so many little things well.”
He has also been pleased with Ekelman, whose shorthanded goal was one of the keys to the Dec. 1 win over UNB.
“He plays the game the right way, and he’s raised his game this year. We have a lot of kids like that. You can really see the influence of (Acadia strength and conditioning coach) Elliott Richardson. He’s given all our teams a huge boost.”
Burns “isn’t planning any major changes” for after Christmas.
“We’re on the road for four of our first five games, so a good start is crucial. Strength and conditioning is a huge factor. It’s been a big part of our season so far, and that can’t change.”