The Western Mustangs women's hockey team stayed on track during reading week, dispatching of the Toronto Varsity Blues by sweeping their best-of-three series. Now, they're looking ahead to an Ontario University Athletics semifinal series with the Guelph Gryphons.
Beating Toronto was no easy feat for the Mustangs, despite the 2–0 series win. They needed two overtime periods to win game one 3–2, and game two was another close (4–2) affair.
Special teams were a major factor in the quarter-final series. In game two alone, there were four power-play goals — two each from Western and Toronto. The Mustangs' power-play operated at 40 per cent success over the two games.
Western also had plenty of help from the back against Toronto, in the form of rookie goaltender, Carmen Lasis. She posted a massive .944 save percentage against the Blues, topping her regular season average of .940. Lasis's performance in the double-overtime game was exceptional, making 44 saves in a 92-minute effort.
With round one out of the way, the Mustangs are looking ahead to their meeting with Guelph. They struggled against the Gryphons this season, losing 4–3 in overtime at home and then falling 5–2 on the road a week later.
Western and Guelph tied in points in the regular season, but the Gryphons placed higher — second in the OUA — thanks to one more win. Guelph actually jumped ahead of the Mustangs on the last day of the season, forcing Western to play Toronto instead of the Brock Badgers in the first round.
Guelph is also the defending OUA champion, winning the last two McCaw Cups. They defeated Western 5–1 in the final in 2016, a game that featured nine current Mustangs.
The Gryphons continued to be dominant this season, and that's why they're ahead of the Mustangs in the U Sports national rankings — they were seventh on last week's list, and Western was 10th.
On paper, the road to the OUA final is a tough one for Western. Although they are level in points, Guelph has the edge in most statistical categories. The Gryphons have the Mustangs beat in total goals (73–61), and they've allowed the fewest against in the league (36).
It would seem that Guelph has a solid offensive advantage. Their dynamic forward trio of Kaitlin Lowy, Kelly Gribbons and Claire Merrick had 24, 23 and 22 points this season, respectively. The Mustangs' leading scorer, April Clark, also had 22, but no other Western player cracked 20.
The Gryphons are pretty stacked all the way through, too. Two of their players — defenceman Katherine Bailey and goalie Valerie Lamenta — were U Sports All-Canadians last season. So, it may be tough for the Mustangs to match their high-scoring opponents.
One area where the Mustangs could come out ahead is, like in the series with Toronto, special teams. Western has the best power-play in the OUA, and Guelph's is second-worst among playoff teams. Similarly, the Mustangs' penalty kill was second in the league, successful 93.3 per cent of the time; the Gryphons' kill sits at 90.1.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, though, they may not have too many opportunities to capitalize on that particular advantage. Guelph is the least-penalized team in the OUA, relying on good discipline to make up for lackluster special teams.
Western will need some big performances from Lasis to get through Guelph. The Gryphons are bound to have plenty of shots, so the Mustangs will only have a chance if they can keep them out of the net.
Before the series with Toronto, Mustangs coach Kelly Paton stressed the need for some secondary scoring to come from her defencemen. That didn't quite work out against the Blues, with just three Western blueliners recording a point, but if they can step up in that area a bit they'll have a chance.
Of course, win or lose, the Mustangs' season isn't over. They're hosting the U Sports national championship at Thompson Arena later in March, so they're guaranteed a spot in that tournament. Still, they'd really like to get there by winning the McCaw Cup.
Game one against the Gryphons is Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Guelph, before the series shifts back to London for game two on Friday.