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The Auburn Hockey Report: 2/20/22

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Season thoughts, playoff projections, and one big ‘ol series preview.

Hey there everybody! Long time, no see. Today brings the bounty of America’s Race, the Daytona 500, but also a new, super-sized version of the Auburn Hockey Report. Rev up your engines, break out the Sunday morning coffee, and get ready to read a whole lot of words about your favorite club sports team.

To read the last edition of this column, click here.

First Period: The Playoff Race Heats Up

It’s been a long, rocky road for the Auburn Tigers since the last edition of this column dropped almost a month ago. After hitting arguably the highest point in recent program history back in January (a sweep of Alabama D-II followed by a No. 4 ranking in the CHF’s equivalent of the BCS), the ride has been anything but smooth. The Tigers head into their final weekend of the regular season riding a four game losing streak, suffering sweeps to No. 2 FAU and, more upsettingly, No. 26 Alabama D-II.

When looking at Auburn’s playoff prospects a while back, it was a fair assumption that the Tigers might struggle to take a game off of a tough FAU team. That they were so handily defeated by the D-II squad for the Tide after playing a tightly contested match with Tuscaloosa’s finest (a 6-3 loss to Alabama’s ACHA D-I team that was much closer than the final score indicated), those outcomes have been difficult to swallow.

Still, with two games left in the 2021-22 regular season Auburn sits squarely in control of its destiny. The College Hockey South (the conference has recently rebranded from being called the SECHC, but that’s talk for a separate article) standings are starting to lock in for the upcoming conference tournament in Huntsville, but the midfield of teams remains tightly contested as the boys from the Plains prepare to march into Athens and face No. 3 UGA.

The most recently published conference standings (Feb. 14) aren’t all the way up to date, but they get across a still-relevant point: the playoff race is going to come down to the wire.
Image via College Hockey South

As of this article being written, South Carolina has barely edged its way into the top eight positions, with a pair of decisive 6-2 and 8-4 wins over rival Clemson in the Palmetto Cup boosting them to 17 points on the year. Florida takes on a struggling FSU program this weekend with an opportunity to punch their ticket to the dance; anything outside of a Gators sweep would be a surprise, but college hockey is prone to producing plenty of absurdist comedy within that same vein.

At the crux of all things sits Ole Miss, who will decide whether they or Alabama D-II end up in the bracket in Huntsville with their weekend slate. If the Rebels (or Landsharks, or whatever they prefer to be called) walk away from this matchup with 17 or 16 points, they’re sitting pretty; if the Tide ride recent momentum into a sweep, they’re looking at an outside shot of making the postseason.

Lastly, there’s Auburn and Tennessee. The Ice Vols finished their regular season with 18 points following a pair of 11-8 wins over Vanderbilt in what was undoubtedly the messiest, dumbest, goofiest rivalry series of the year in the conference. I say that with love. Auburn, with 16 points, needs to at least walk away from their outdoor series in Athens with 17 to keep playing in March. Looking at the complexion of both teams entering the upcoming weekend, that might be a tall task.

Second Period: Leave It All Out There

Auburn and Georgia are interesting foils to one another. The Ice Dawgs have a lengthy track record of success and a conference championship under their belts, as well as a home rink in Athens, a veteran head coach, and a rock-solid booster program providing financial support and organization. Auburn is an upstart program with impactful youth, a new head coach, little history of postseason glory, and a meteoric upward trajectory started by former players and coaches like Hayden Harris, Chandler Brown, Marcel Richard, Mike Robinson, Trevor Hightower and Elliott Chenger.

This outdoor series, one Auburn has been marketing as a big, annual event, is more than an intense final push to secure a playoff spot; it’s a clash of blue blood versus new blood to determine the directions of the respective programs. Auburn overcoming UGA would signal a monumental shift in the power balance among CHS teams; prior to this, there’s been no proof that these Tigers, a respectable but decidedly non-dominant team, could win against the big boys. They’ve played FAU, Alabama D-I, and even UGA close, but have gone 0-5 against them. This is their chance to change the narrative from “close, but no cigar” to being legitimate contenders who can threaten any team in the single-elimination bracket of the CHS tournament.

The Ice Dawgs will be tough to take a point off of, especially given that Auburn will face them in hostile conditions; the outdoor rink has notoriously iffy ice that the Dawgs should be familiar with after having played weekend series on it this month, as opposed to Auburn’s lack of experience playing in such an environment. The Tigers will have to travel on a Thursday, while the Dawgs get to play within walking distance of campus. UGA has only dropped one in-conference game this year to Georgia Tech, while Auburn has been maddeningly inconsistent from week to week.

It’s a series of contrasts, a series of hatred, a series that promises to be the most important the conference has seen since the Palmetto Cup. It’s must-watch hockey in the final week, and that’s about all you can ask for.

Third Period: Auburn Hockey History

After speaking with an Auburn Hockey alum from the 1980s teams this past week, there’s been a treasure trove of fun facts, history, and other neat stuff uncovered from what was once a void in the program’s chronicles. Let’s go over some quick-hitting things that might be relevant to your interests:

  1. Auburn Hockey has, in fact, beaten Alabama’s best team and won a conference championship. The 1982 Tigers dominated the old SCHA (Southern Collegiate Hockey Association) before going on to win the conference, earning a national tournament berth in the process. While what happened in the final game of that season isn’t particularly auspicious (a 16-2 loss to eventual national champion UAH in the playoffs), it’s worth noting that Auburn was a powerhouse that recruited on a national scale, at least by club hockey standards, up until the original club’s dissolution in 1984 due to the team getting into trouble with the University. Over that span, the Tigers handily beat Alabama at least once, according to Mr. John Nordness and Mr. Scott Sickler’s recollections.
  2. Auburn almost landed a goalie who ended up getting a Team U.S.A tryout invite with the pitch of “a beautiful campus and beautiful co-eds.” The goaltender, whose name Nordness could not recall, would later go on to play elsewhere at a higher level, but at one point he almost ended up wearing the Orange & Blue. This was thanks to the efforts of the club’s academic sponsor, a hockey-crazed professor from Michigan who printed full-color recruiting pamphlets and issued them to hundreds of high schools across the country. Pretty wild.
  3. Pat Benatar was once given an Auburn Hockey jersey. During a concert in the 1980s at Beard-Eaves Coliseum, the team’s backup goalie ended up somehow getting the jersey to the stage, where it was waved around like a flag by the rock star. The more you know.
  4. One of the original Auburn Hockey jersey designs was a complete, intentional rip-off of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. The story goes that a freshman recruit whose parents owned a sporting goods store walked in, saw the first set of jerseys the team had, and said “these are terrible.” He sent for new uniforms from back home and got them in the form of these glorious sweaters that would most assuredly earn a cease-and-desist from the Albertan NHL franchise today:
Aside from a paw print and altering “Oilers” to “Tigers,” this jersey screams copyright violation.
Image via John Nordness, Auburn Hockey

Overtime: Clip of the Week

Auburn’s second run at Alabama D-II didn’t go very well, but defenseman James Willoughby-Ray had his bit of fun regardless of the final score by obliterating a Tide skater who cut to the middle in his own zone. Gotta keep your head on a swivel.

That’s all for this week’s edition. Stay tuned for more articles as College & Mag breaks down all kinds of Auburn Hockey news and content, such as:

  • Why the SECHC decided to rebrand as the CHS... in the final weeks of the regular season.
  • Playoff breakdowns and series previews
  • An ode to Alabama Hockey being easily the most unlikable incarnation of the University yet.
  • Apparel and financial news!
  • More “Hockey for Beginners” content.
  • Q&As

Until next time, good day, and good hockey.