With a pair of road losses to Concordia and Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières this weekend, the Western men's hockey team has been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in Ontario University Athletics. The Mustangs will miss the postseason for the first time since the 1998–99 season, 18 years ago.
The Mustangs went into their Quebec road trip on a high after defeating first-place McGill in a shootout to close out their final homestand but knew their backs were against the wall.
On Thursday, they sat four points behind the eighth-place Lakehead Thunderwolves, but losing 7–4 and 5–3 to their Québecois opponents put the final nail in the Mustangs' coffin.
Now, with just two games left on the docket, Western's 8–16–2 record puts them six points back of Lakehead for that final playoff spot after the Thunderwolves' win on Friday over Waterloo.
Western closes out their season next weekend in a back-to-back against Lakehead, which had all the makings of a thrilling showdown had the Mustangs won just one game in Quebec. Now, it'll be a meaningless trip to Thunder Bay with both teams' fates already determined.
Regardless of the outcome, the Mustangs will finish ninth in the OUA West — their worst finish ever under head coach Clarke Singer.
All the Mustangs can do now is play spoiler to the Thunderwolves, who will be looking to improve their own playoff position in their homestand against Western. Lakehead can jump as high as fifth in the OUA West with a couple of wins.
Western has been abysmal on the road all year, with the losses in Quebec nothing unusual for them. The Mustangs have just two away wins in 12 games so far, the same record as fellow basement-dwellers Toronto and RMC.
The last time Western failed to qualify for the playoffs, they at least had an excuse. In the '90s, the OUA's divisional structure allowed teams with poor records to make it if their division was weak. Back in 1999, the Mustangs had a .500 record, and would have been the best team in other divisions.
This time, though, there's nothing to justify an early exit. They would've been out of the playoffs in either division. The 2016-17 Mustangs have 18 players returning from last year's Queen's Cup finalist team. The team fell short this year with an inexperienced defence and frequent mid-game collapses.
Last year's Western team wasn't pretty either, but they could score. The 2015-16 Mustangs finished fourth in the OUA in goals, scoring 35 more goals than they have so far this season.
What might hurt the most, though, is that the Mustangs had no shortage of opportunities to score this year. Despite having the fifth-worst goal total of 68, Western has actually taken the sixth-most shots, with 891. Western's PDO of 96.5 is the second lowest in the OUA, suggesting they haven't had their fair share of puck luck this season.
It's hard to tell exactly where the Mustangs went wrong this year. They've had a troubled season, struggling in all areas of the ice. Whether the blame falls on young defence, an impotent offence or just bad luck, there's no denying that this team has fallen short of the expectations of Western's hockey program.