Men's hockey, Feb 27

For the second straight year, the Mustangs will play the Gryphons in the OUA Western division final. The winner will continue on to the Queen’s Cup championship game against the Eastern division champions.

Last season, Western University entered the divisional showdown as the favourite over Guelph University. This season, as the eight-seed, the Mustangs have rode two improbable series victories to a berth in the final.

The Gryphons won as the underdog last year — taking home game three by a score of 4-3 in double overtime.

Guelph is even better this year, though. After finishing with 30 points in 2018-19, the Gryphons racked up 39 in 2019-20.

Even more impressive, the team rattled off an 8-2-2 record through the latter half of the regular season. Through five games in the Queen’s Cup playoffs, the Gryphons are 4-1-0.

The team is built on speed and offence, leading the Ontario University Athletics in both goals and assists this season.

In the last matchup between the two teams during the regular season — a 5-4 Mustangs victory at Budweiser Gardens – the Gryphons overcame a two-goal deficit and nearly came back from a 5-3 deficit to win the game.

Blink, and the Gryphons offence can beat you.

During the playoffs, though, the Mustangs sit just two spots behind Guelph in goals per game and three back in goals against average.

The Gryphons have been better than Western throughout the February tournament, but the gap is much closer than it was during the regular season.

The Mustangs will need to rely on two of the biggest clichés in hockey — goaltending and special teams — in order to earn a spot in the Queen’s Cup championship game.

After a difficult regular season, Luke Peressini has been excellent for the Mustangs during the playoffs. Through six games, he owns a 2.31 GAA and a .935 save percentage.

After beating Toronto in the second game of the first round, forward Sean Montgomery explained that the team plays more free when Peressini is at the top of his game.

“Yeah, definitley it's a confidence booster when you know you've got a guy that can bail you out at the back,” said Montgomery. “So, yeah, he was outstanding again tonight. Definitely helps the team out, [we] play more free with a guy like that in net.”

Guelph has not been as strong between the pipes as the Mustangs through five playoff games against the Brock Badgers and Laurier Golden Hawks. First-year goaltender Brendan Cregan has posted a 2.12 GAA and a .913 save percentage in five games.

While Cregan’s save percentage is worse than Peressini’s, his goals against average is slightly  better thanthe veteran’s — displaying the strength of the Gryphons team defence.

The Mustangs will need to direct traffic towards Cregan’s net in order to crack the stalwart Gryphons squad. On the other side of the ice, the Mustangs veteran netminder will need to outbattle his rookie counterpart.

The goaltender battle will be on full display during the special teams matchup.

During the playoffs, the Mustangs have been slightly better than the Gryphons on the powerplay, sitting fourth in the OUA — and first among remaining teams – with a 30 per cent success rate. Guelph sits just one spot behind — converting on 27.3 per cent of their opportunities.

However, on the penalty kill, the Gryphons have been literally unbeatable in the playoffs. Through five games, Guelph has yet to allow a goal while shorthanded. If the Mustangs can’t find the net on the power play, they will likely lose the divisional final quite quickly.

To be fair, Western has held their own while shorthanded – turning aside 85.7 per cent of their opponents opportunities – and they have previously neutralized the potent Varsity Blues power play – the only unit that had more success than Guelph with the man advantage during the regular season.

A win in this area of the ice is integral for a Mustangs victory in the series. At even strength, the Gryphons are better on both offence and defence.

On paper, Guelph is better – but so were the Rams and Varsity Blues.

Western will put their miracle run through the OUA playoffs to the test on Thursday night, before returning to Thompson Arena on Saturday night for game two.

If the Mustangs can rattle off two wins against the Gryphons, they’ll lock in their spot for the U Sports National Championships in men's hockey in Halifax, N.S.

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