The Western Mustangs will begin their charge through the tough Ontario University Athletics playoffs with a three-game series against the Laurier Golden Hawks this weekend.
After Saturday night’s game, head coach Clarke Singer was clear how he wanted his team to play in the upcoming series.
“Gritty,” declared Singer. “You know, that's something when you look at the Western teams in the past; they've often been identified by their skill. I certainly think we have lots of skill, but we have to continue to increase our grit quotient to be successful in the playoffs.”
No matter how physical Western plays, they will have their hands full with the Golden Hawks. Over their four-game season series, the Mustangs finished 1–2–1.
As well, in those four games, the Mustangs were outscored 17–12 (including a terrible 5–1 drubbing in the school day game in January).
All season, assistant coach Patrick Ouellet has noted how special teams will win games during the postseason. The Mustangs matchup against the Golden Hawks may come down to that aspect of the game.
Through 28 regular season games, the Golden Hawks have ranked fourth in the league in penalty kill percentage, while the Mustangs power play finished 18th.
Additionally, the Mustangs penalty kill was slightly less successful than the Golden Hawks, ranking seventh in the OUA; Laurier’s power play hummed along at a decent 18 per cent clip this year.
Both Mustangs players and coaches have noted the growth of the power play this season. Recently, members of the team have lauded the unit’s ability to move the puck in the offensive zone. Puck movement won’t be enough in the playoffs, though. Western will need to be able to produce with the extra man to have any hope of moving on.
The good news for Western, though, is that the Golden Hawks have struggled on the road all season. The Golden Hawks goaltenders, specifically, have struggled away from home ice.
In 14 games, Laurier’s netminders have locked down opponents at home with a collective .931 save percentage and 2.35 goals against average. However, on the road, the puck stoppers have allowed an abysmal .878 save percentage and averaged 3.50 goals against.
Both at home and on the road, though, Laurier has struggled to create much of an offensive attack. The team ranked 17th in the league in goals and 15th in assists.
The Golden Hawks leading point producer, Christian Mroczkowski, had just 19 points in 24 games.
Against a defensive team like the Golden Hawks, it will be incredibly important for the Mustangs to stay focused in their own zone. In a three-game series, a blowout loss could quickly destroy confidence and hurt their future in the postseason.
Promisingly, though, growth in the defensive zone has been a major bright spot for assistant coach Ouellette over this season, which he explained on Friday.
“I'm thinking about [Kyle] Pettit, and I'm thinking about [Cordell] James, and those guys are taking little bit more of a leadership role on our team,” said Ouellette when asked what this team has improved on over the year. “It's rarely a blowout [in this league];… maybe in the OHL they're more offensive and they get away without playing a strong defensive game. But, in this league,… no matter who you are or what your role is on the team, you need to be strong defensively.”
Ultimately, though, the defence simply needs to support their best player, goaltender Luke Peressini. With a .921 save percentage and 2.31 GAA, nobody has been more integral to Western's success this year.
Last season, Western was bounced from the playoffs by the Ryerson Rams after just three games. This year, the team will open as the series favourite with a chance to extend their strong year.
The Mustangs and Golden Hawks kick off their best-of-three series on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Thompson Arena.