The Mustangs have drawn the unenviable task of playing the Varsity Blues in the first round of Queen’s Cup playoffs this week.
Western University will likely need to play the two best games of their season to win the series.
The University of Toronto won the Ontario University Athletics' Western Division this year with 44 points and a record of 21-5-2. The only team that had a better season in the OUA were the Eastern Division champion Carleton Ravens.
Earlier this year, the Varsity Blues rattled off 14 straight wins. The team didn’t lose a game in regulation from November to January.
In other words, Toronto has been nearly unbeatable this year.
But the Mustangs have a plan: in order to overcome the vaunted Varsity Blues, they will look to the recent past.
Before last year’s playoffs, Western owned the three-seed entering the first round. Despite the high seeding, head coach Clarke Singer said at the time that his squad wouldn't be able to win on their skill alone — they’d have to become a grittier team.
The Mustangs rode that mindset through two victorious playoff series — and came one goal away from a trip to the U Sports national championship.
When asked if the message was the same coming into this year’s playoffs, Singer didn’t hesitate in his response.
“For sure,” Singer agreed. “I think, if you just look at how hard the games are getting and how strong you have to be along the wall and in front of the net, both to defend and to score — we definitely have to take a jump in that area. I think we're working hard. We're doing lots of good things. We just gotta find a way to be a little bit stronger.”
As Singer mentioned, the Mustangs will need to be tough in the offensive zone.
No matter which goaltender is between the pipes for the Varsity Blues, they are going to be difficult to beat.
The Varsity Blues’ starter, Alex Bishop, has a .924 save percentage in 35 games; Bishop's backup, Frederic Foulem, has a .927 in six games.
Getting to the net, creating traffic and getting under the skin of the Varsity Blues could all be ways in which Western could find offensive production at even strength.
On the defensive side of the ice, the Mustangs will need the same type of physical presence.
All of the top-five scorers on the Varsity Blues roster are either in their first or second year in the OUA. In the past, players have noted that the physical aspect of OUA hockey surprised them as they adjusted to the new league. Since the Mustangs can’t match the skill of some of the Varsity Blues forwards, their best option may be to turn up the physical pressure and frustrate the young team.
The team could hone in on this strategy by constructing a shut-down line to take on Toronto’s top unit, which is led by the league's leading scorer David Thomson.
At the tail end of this season, Singer has played with lines that mimic the shut-down archetype — veteran centre-man Kyle Pettit has often been flanked by two physical, defensively responsible wingers.
A line of this type could be a strong weapon for the Mustangs in the short three game series. Shutting down Thomson should be a priority for Singer and his staff.
Aside from adopting a gritty style, the Mustangs could win this series on the back of their strong special teams. Despite trailing Toronto by a wide margin in most categories, Western sits third in powerplay percentage (24.2 per cent), behind the league-leading Varsity Blues (32.3 per cent).
On the penalty kill, the Mustangs own the eighth best unit (83.3 per cent), just ahead of the ninth-best Toronto outfit (82.1 per cent).
Winning the special teams battle may be the best way for Mustangs to win the series. A resurgence from both units helped lead Western through three rounds last year. Only time will tell if they can recreate that magic this year.
The Mustangs begin their series against the top-ranked Varsity Blues on Wednesday night at Varsity Arena.