For the Mustangs, currently ranked as the No. 5 team in Canada, the playoffs begin tomorrow night at Thompson Arena when they take on the Waterloo Warriors in the first game of a best-of-three OUAWest semi-final.
Having won their division for the sixth straight year, the Mustangs earned a bye through the first round of the playoffs and a week off. On the other side, the Warriors weren’t so lucky, earning their right to play in the division semifinal by defeating the Laurier Golden Hawks in a tight threegame series.
Despite already having battled through a tough series, Warriors head coach Karl Taylor doesn’t expect fatigue to be a factor for his team.
“The fact that we played and they didn’t shouldn’t matter,” he said of the Mustangs’ hiatus. “The hardest part is changing channels after preparing hard to beat Laurier. Western is a different kind of challenge — they will give us a huge test.”
Statistically, the two teams come into the series having experienced opposite seasons. The Mustangs were stellar in the first half, not suffering a regulation loss in 2004, but stumbled to a mediocre 6-6 record in the second half. Conversely, the Warriors got off to a dismal 2-6 start before going on an impressive 11-game unbeaten streak which included two wins over Western to even the season series at two apiece.
“Early on we weren’t playing badly — we just weren’t getting it done. The guys learned how to win,” Taylor said of his team’s drastic turnaround. “The two wins against Western were big for our confidence because we hadn’t won there in so long [five years]. We had to learn to beat them.”
Western can take solace in the fact that while its second half was less than impressive, the team was forced to endure a fair amount of adversity. The two losses to Waterloo came at a point when the Mustangs were without seven regular players and their head coach, all of whom were competing at the World University Games in Austria.
Another good sign for the Mustangs was the way they finished their regular season, defeating the Lakehead Thunderwolves in two must-win games to claim their sixth-straight division title.
“Any time you get two wins like the ones we got in Thunder Bay, it’ll boost your confidence,” Mustangs assistant coach Barry Martinelli said. “We went into Lakehead having to win twice to get first place, and we did it. I don’t think too many people would have expected that.”
In last year’s Queen’s Cup tournament, the Mustangs fell to the underdog University of Toronto. Many felt the Mustangs came into that game overconfident, but Martinelli doesn’t expect his team to suffer the same fate this year.
“We’re much more confident than we were in mid-January, but we’re very respectful of our opponent,” he explained. “Last year we finished far ahead of everyone else. This year, in the second half especially, we had to battle in every game. We’ve suffered through some adversity and I think it’s made us a better team.”
As for how the Mustangs plan to stop the red-hot Warriors? “Their strengths are up front and in goal,” Martinelli said. “If we can take away their forecheck and make sure their key guys don’t win the game for them, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Mustangs come into the series hurting on the back end. Top-two defenseman Matt Bannan sat out the Lakehead games with an injury, but is expected to play Thursday evening. Taylor will look to exploit the fragile defense corps.
“Western’s defense has been pretty banged up lately, so that will be a key for us,” he said. “We have to get them pinned in their end and try to wear down the defense over the series.”
Puck-drop on Thursday is set for 7:35 p.m. Game 2 goes Saturday night in Waterloo, and game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for Sunday night at Thompson. All games will be broadcast live on CHRW 94.9FM.