The Mustangs men's hockey team has faltered to start the 2016-17 season, seventh in the Ontario University Athletics West Division after nine games. Western has an overall record of 4-4-1, and currently find themselves on a three-game losing streak.
Most recently, the Mustangs dropped a close game to the RMC Paladins, falling 2-1 in overtime last Friday night at Thompson Arena. Defenceman Jed Rusk had the lone Western goal in the losing effort.
"We're a young team and we've been going through a bit of a learning curve," said forward Matt Marantz, one of Western's captains. "There's a lot of new guys to the league. They've done a great job, but they've had a bit of trouble putting it all together."
Fortunately for the Mustangs, a three-game skid is not the end of the world. Just last year, Western lost four in a row during the season en route to their appearance at the national championships. They followed that slump with a five-game winning streak.
"It's still very early in the year in the big picture," said head coach Clarke Singer. "We're not altering our plan."
Heading into 2016-17, Western's players knew it might be a challenging season. Most of the team's defensive core graduated last year, so a group of young blueliners have been forced to develop chemistry on the fly.
Defence hasn't been an issue for the Mustangs, though. In fact, they rank seventh in the OUA with a 3.01 team goals-against average. Last year, they placed ninth by the same metric, surrendering 3.00 goals per game.
"I don't think keeping pucks out of our net has been the real problem," said Marantz. "It's been trying to get pucks into the opponent's net. [The defence] has done a great job, we're all kind of coming together as a team now. We're just trying to find a way to score more goals."
Players like sophomore Jonathan Laser and rookie Rylan Bechtel have led the youth movement on defence for the Mustangs, with veteran fourth-year Jed Rusk providing leadership in the back end.
As Marantz pointed out, Western's main problem this season has been in the offensive zone. The team is averaging a measly 2.22 goals per game, 15th in the OUA. A year ago, their 103 goals put them fourth in the whole league.
In 2015-16, the Mustangs saw offensive contributions from every part of their lineup. Twelve players recorded more than 10 points, with four players above 20. The top two scorers from last year, Spenser Cobbold and Marantz, remain crucial pieces of the team.
The team may just be snakebitten at the moment. Western ranks eighth in the league with 319 shots, despite a poor goal total. Their shooting percentage is an abysmal 6.3 per cent, well below the league average of 9.6.
Hockey's PDO statistic, which combines a team's shooting percentage and save percentage, is a metric that roughly measures how lucky a team has been compared to the rest of the league. The Mustangs have a PDO of 97.7, 15th in the OUA and below the 99.9 average.
A low PDO indicates that the team's scoring woes may be temporary, as typically teams below the average of 100 or so regress to the mean.
"I think we've created a ton of chances," Marantz said, "we're just not getting the puck in the net right now, and I don't think that's going to last forever. I think it's positive that we're getting chances, we just need to find some way to finish."
There is certainly hope for the Mustangs, who have eighteen games left to get back on track. Shots are bound to start going in at some point. They scored six goals against Guelph not long ago on Oct. 28, and have shown they're capable of being a powerful offensive team.
"Even in the games we've lost I don't think we played that bad," added Marantz."Once we get a game where we score a few goals I'm sure the floodgates will open for us."
It'll be tough for the Mustangs to break out of their slump in the next stretch of games, though. Their next two are against UOIT and Queen's, the top two in the East Division, followed by Ryerson, who sit first in the West Division.
"The parity in our league is second to none," said Singer. "In my 18 years here I've never seen the ten teams in the West [Division] as close as they are."
Western resumes their campaign Friday night against the UOIT Ridgebacks on the road in Oshawa.