Western Dashes Lakehead's Playoff Hopes
Western Mustangs Men's HockeyEva Nagel
Friday evening at Thompson Area featured the start of a two-game homestand against Lakehead, which concludes the Western Mustangs men’s hockey regular season, with playoffs set to begin next week. Coming in to the game with a record of 15-12, the purple & white had already clinched a postseason berth, guaranteed to finish at worst 4th place in the OUA Western conference. The opposition, travelling a short 13-hour drive from Thunder Bay, were fighting for their playoff lives. The Thunderwolves needed to win both games at Thompson and hope that Laurier could beat Toronto on Friday in order to earn the conference’s last playoff spot. Lakehead scratched and clawed their way keeping pace with the Mustangs throughout but fell just short, as the home side came off the ice with a well-earned 3-2 victory.
The game started off with a bang soon after the first whistle blew. Just over a minute into the first period, a Lakehead defender trying to clear the puck up the end boards accidentally poked the puck right into the slot. A surprised Kenny Huether made no mistake with his golden opportunity, firing a snapshot past Thunderwolves’ netminder Devin Green for the 1-0 Western lead. Mitchell Fitzmorris and freshman sensation Ethan Szypula picked up the assists. The Mustangs were then charged with back-to-back penalties, with Rylan Bechtel called for tripping. After successfully killing off the Lakehead powerplay, Mitchell Brooks was almost immediately whistled down for an infraction, also for tripping. However, Western spent the majority of the man disadvantage on the offensive. Once back to five-on-five hockey, Spenser Cobbold had a golden opportunity on a wraparound attempt but was stopped by Green’s pad. Green’s net acrobatics was not enough however to prevent the Mustangs’ from padding their lead. With 7:14 remaining, Cordell James stole the puck. After crossing the blue line, he passed to a trailing Adam Sinclair, who buried the rubber top shelf to make the score 2-0. Stephen Desrocher tallied the second assist. It was an even back-and-forth affair for the final minutes, with Green and his Western counterpart, Luke Peressini engaging in a battle of spectacular saves. Otherwise, the only remaining point of interest saw Lakehead’s Callum Fryer head back to the dressing room with what look liked an arm injury. He did not return to the game.
The second period was almost a mirror reversal of the opening frame. With 18:41 on the clock, freshman Dexter Kuczek somehow wound up with the puck behind the Mustangs’ defense, toe dragged Peressini out of his skates, before shooting it into the open net to put the Thunderwolves on the board. Tomas Soustal and Josh Laframboise notched the apples on Kuczek’s marker. Lakehead pressured Peressini for the vast majority of the second, with the Nobleton, Ontario native having to bail out his defensive corp with a series of quality stops. There were only two top quality chances by Western in the frame, the first seemingly gift-wrapped for the Mustangs to restore their two-goal advantage. A Thunderwolves’ defender’s stick broke attempting to clear the zone, with the puck landing square at the feet of a Western attacker. He held on too long however, with Green easily pushing aside the shot. The second came off a diving wraparound from Szypula, which Green barely kept out by deflecting it with his toe. Despite the flurry of Lakehead chances, the purple & white skated off the ice with their lead intact after 40 minutes gone.
The final period of play was a constant flurry of action from beginning to end. Shortly after the opening faceoff, Ray Huether went coast to coast with the puck, only to see it poked away by a defender at the last moment. Then the Mustangs took two penalties in quick succession, the elder Huether highsticking the Thunderwolve's Brennen Dubchak, soon followed by Bechtel delivering an undisciplined cross-check to give the visitors a 5-on-3 advantage. However, Western buckled down and killed off both penalties in quality fashion. In addition, Sinclair found himself on a shorthanded breakaway, which was denied by Green. With 9:25 left to play, fifth year Trevor Warnaar skated from blue line to blue line. As he crossed into the offensive zone, he fired a pass to Cobbold, who snapped it in under the crossbar to give the Mustangs a 3-1 lead. Kyle Pettit tallied the second assist. But just over 20 seconds later, the puck found itself on the stick of Laframboise in point blank range of Peressini. The Thunder Bay native quickly ripped it past the off-guard goalie to make it a one goal game. This scoreline held for the remainder of the frame, until the Thunderwolves pulled Green for the extra attacker with under two minutes to go. With 90 seconds left in regulation, Cobbold fired a shot before entering the Lakehead zone. The puck bulged the twine centre mass, firmly re-establishing the two-goal gap. The purple & white maintained this so that when the game horn sounded, the homeside left with a 4-2 victory.
Both Western and Lakehead play their final regular season game Saturday at 4pm from the confines of Thompson Area. If Western wins and/or Guelph loses to Windsor at home, the Mustangs will clinch third place in the Western conference. They will play either Guelph, Wilfried Laurier, or Windsor in the opening playoff round.