A week-and-a-half after their most recent game, the Western Mustangs women's hockey team will be back in action Wednesday night as they open the 2018 Ontario University Athletics playoffs against the Toronto Varsity Blues. The game at Thompson Arena will be the first of a best-of-three series, in which the Mustangs hold home-ice advantage.
After finishing third in OUA, the Mustangs get to play the sixth-seeded Blues in the quarter-finals. They fell out of second place on the last day of the season, when the Guelph Gryphons squeaked ahead.
Western may have had a long layoff from the last time they played, but their opponents haven't. Toronto played on Saturday, losing 3–1 to the York Lions.
"The time off is good for letting girls recover, letting their bodies get back to 100 per cent," said Mustangs coach, Kelly Paton. "But if you speak to a coach who's been playing longer than we have then they may say it's a positive [to play last weekend] because they're fresh from competition."
Perhaps the toughest part of their extra week off was that the Mustangs had no idea who their first-round opponent would be until last Sunday. With the standings so tight, there was a number of teams Paton had to consider in their preparation.
Although they didn't have the luxury of scouting out a specific opponent all week, the Mustangs got a lot of value out of an extra week's practice before the playoffs. Their game plan likely wouldn't have changed much regardless of who they're facing.
"We're really trying to engage a five man unit," explained Paton about the team's goals for last week. "Having our defence able to jump in the rush and join the attack. I think the strength of our team through the season so far has been our defensive zone play so it's really through the neutral and offensive zones that we want to focus."
The Mustangs were indeed one of the best defensive teams in the OUA, allowing just 40 goals — third-best in the league. On the other side of the coin, they've scored 60, but they have just one defender above 10 points — Emma Pearson, with 13.
Pearson's 11 assists from the blue line are impressive, and they put her second among OUA defencemen. Still, Paton would like to see some more contributions from the back end.
In the Varsity Blues, the Mustangs will see an opponent they've battled hard against this season. In two contests, both teams have a regulation win — Toronto won 2–1 in November, and the Mustangs returned the favour, 3–2, in January.
Perhaps the toughest part of this first round series for Western will be finishing their chances. Toronto's goaltender, Madeline Albert, leads the OUA with a .945 save percentage. The Blues are a decently strong defensive team, but they lag a little behind in terms of scoring.
The Mustangs may have to lean on their power-play, which, at 20.9 per cent, is best in the OUA by a significant margin. In tandem with that, the Varsity Blues are one of the most-penalized teams in the league, taking 107 penalties this season — more than every team but York.
Paton stresses that it's important for her team to focus on the game ahead of them, even though they're already assured of a spot at the U Sports national championship as hosts.
"It's been really important to our program to do our best to earn our spot at nationals and not just use that guarantee," she said. "We're all competitive, and the OUAs mean a lot. It's certainly our top priority right now."
The Mustangs play game one on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. before shifting to Toronto on Friday for game two.