Western's men's hockey team came out of their final home stand of the season far more optimistic than they were going into it last week. With two wins in three games, the Mustangs have a vicelike grip on their last ray of hope for a playoff spot, now sitting four points out with a four-game road trip ahead to close the season.
Saturday night's spirited 5–4 shootout win over the first-place McGill Redmen came as a surprise to those who have watched the Mustangs this year. The home team played with a fire they've been lacking for months in a do-or-die situation, at times dominating the OUA's best team.
"It's just confidence," said assistant coach Steve Benedetti. "Get bounces here and there and all of a sudden things go your way."
Western was either in the lead or tied all game, coming out of the gate hot with a quick goal by Ray Huether — who also won it later with the only successful shootout attempt. Both teams were in and out of the penalty box all night, Western and McGill both scoring twice on the power play with 48 combined penalty minutes.
Benedetti was unhappy with some of the refereeing decisions, pointing out some soft calls that went against the Mustangs, but the execution on the penalty kill made up for it.
Goalie Greg Dodds made the difference for the Mustangs, though, stopping 44 shots and all three shootout attempts to shut down McGill's lethal offence.
"We know what's on the line here," said Huether. "If we don't win games we're not going to make the playoffs and our season's going to be over."
Making the playoffs is no longer the pipe dream it was a week ago. Western will play twice in Québec next weekend, against Concordia University and Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), before a two-game showdown in Thunder Bay against Lakehead, who currently hold the eighth and final postseason spot in the OUA West.
"[Head coach Clarke Singer] did the math for us, and basically said if we won three of our five before Lakehead we'd have a shot at those games being meaningful," said Dodds. "We've got two wins out of the way now and we still have two games to go."
On paper, the Mustangs look like a playoff team. A deeper look into the statistics suggests they haven't had their fair share of lucky bounces this year. Western has just 61 goals, 16th in the OUA, but they've taken the sixth-most total shots with 823.
In recent years, hockey statisticians have used a team's PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) as a crude indicator of luck. Anything under 98 suggests a team has been a little unluckier than the rest of the league. Western sits third-last in the OUA with a PDO of 96.3.
Many stats suggest the Mustangs should probably be closer to a playoff spot than they are. A metric called Estimated Fenwick Close (EFC%) roughly measures how much a team possesses the puck by tracking shots in situations where the score is close (when both teams are playing at their hardest).
Western sits a solid 14th in the OUA in EFC%, holding onto the puck about 47.6 per cent of the time. That puts them ahead Lakehead, giving them an advantage in Thunder Bay two weeks from now, and just behind UQTR. Concordia is the third-strongest team in the OUA by this measure, and will definitely pose the toughest challenge.
Of course, Western will not play against a better team this year than McGill. The Redmen are one of the top sides in all of Canada, and the Mustangs matched them in every area of the ice.
All this suggests the Mustangs are in with a fighting chance for this season-ending road trip. They beat Concordia last year and fell heartbreakingly in the Queen's Cup final to UQTR, so there are no unfamiliar opponents to come.
"There's no reason why we can't come back and play at home again," said Dodds.
"At the end of the day you've got to look in the mirror and do what you can do," added Benedetti. "Hopefully we can write our own destiny."
The Mustangs will indeed control their own fate if they win this weekend. Beat a Québec team, and it'll be a tooth-and-nail battle the week after against Lakehead.