When the Western Mustangs women's hockey team takes to the ice at the U Sports national championship in two weeks, they'll have earned it. Even if they weren't hosting the tournament, a spot in the Ontario University Athletics final would be enough to qualify them.
The Mustangs beat the Guelph Gryphons 3–2 in overtime on Friday, completing their sweep of the semifinal series. Now, they're looking ahead to a date with the Queen's Gaels for the McCaw Cup on Sat. March 10.
Western wasn't favoured against Guelph, and certainly nobody expected them to sweep the two-time defending champions. Of course, both games could've gone either way; each contest was decided by just one goal. The Gryphons were, on multiple occasions, just inches away from scoring in overtime on Friday.
Now, though, that's behind them. The Mustangs have a week to prepare for their trip to Kingston, where they'll try to win the McCaw Cup for the first time since 2015.
"Last year, after a heartbreaking loss in the first round of the playoffs, this is quite a comeback," said Mustangs forward Ali Beres, referencing their loss to the Waterloo Warriors in 2017.
Western enters this one-game final with Queen's as the underdogs again, despite riding a 10-game win streak. This is because the Gaels finished first in the OUA, losing in regulation just three times all season.
The Gaels' path to the final was just as tough, if not tougher, than Western's. They needed all three games to beat Waterloo in the first round, and then they won by just one goal in both their semifinal games.
Queen's and Western played twice this year, both teams winning on the road. The Gaels won 4–0 at Thompson Arena back in November, and the Mustangs returned the favour with a 3–0 shutout in late January. That win in Kingston was the start of Western's current 10-game winning streak.
With just under a week until the championship game, the Mustangs have their work cut out for them.
"We want to make sure they're getting rest," said head coach Kelly Paton about the plan for her players this week. "We probably won't spend a ton of time on the ice, but we're going to really focus on trying to teach through video."
This playoff run has definitely been taxing on the Mustangs, with two games going to double overtime. They might get better value out of studying up on their opponents than they would from practicing every day.
The Mustangs can likely learn a lot from reviewing their games against the Gaels. If they can figure out what worked for them in January and what didn't in November, they'll have a chance.
Immediately after the win on Friday, Paton began analyzing Queen's and what her team can do against them.
"They're a team that has a very shot-first mentality," she said. "So it's just controlling our gap and defending the rush well, getting good box-outs around the net."
She's right that Queen's loves to shoot the puck. The Gaels took the second-most shots in the OUA this season, testing opposing goalies 730 times. That means Western's netminder, Carmen Lasis, might have a busy night on Saturday.
Thankfully, Lasis should be up to the task. She was a rock against Guelph, making 40 saves in the series-clinching game — the second time she's stopped 40 or more in these playoffs.
Down at the other end, though, Queen's has a brick wall of their own. Stephanie Pascal is one of the top goaltenders in the country, being named U Sports female athlete of the month in January. She leads all OUA goalies with a .963 save percentage in the playoffs, averaging less than one goal against per game.
Queen's can keep goals out of their own net, but unfortunately for Western, Queen's can score a few themselves, too. Katrina Manoukarakis led the OUA with 15 goals and 30 points this season, and Addi Halladay has five points in five games in the playoffs.
That said, nobody is hotter right now than Western's own Alyssa Chiarello, who leads the league with six playoff points in four games.
The Mustangs are on the trajectory they want to be on heading into nationals. They're probably playing the best hockey they've played all year, just at the right time, and they're hoping that can peak at the U Sports tournament.
Still, Paton doesn't want them to lose sight of the work they need to do for that to happen.
"We're still working to play a full 60 minutes," she said. "There's certain concepts and certain strategies that are becoming a lot more natural at this point in the season."
The Mustangs will try to win the McCaw Cup and hopefully improve their seeding for nationals, on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Kingston Memorial Arena.