The Ogden Mustangs wrapped up the regular season last weekend, concluding the campaign with a 42-7-3 record, for 87 points, finishing first in the Western States Hockey League’s Western Division.
Finishing first gives the Mustangs a bye through the first round of the playoffs, which will be taking place this weekend. The Mustangs will host a second-round series starting March 24 against either the Casper Coyotes, Cheyenne Stampede or Superior RoughRiders.
This is the first time in six seasons of existence that the Mustangs have finished first in the division at the conclusion of the season. The 42 wins pass last season’s franchise record of 38. The 87 points pass least season’s franchise record of 78.
“Obviously I would consider the season to this point a success,” said Mustangs head coach Jake Laime. “We have set many organizational records and achieved many goals we set out to achieve in August. But like they say, the regular season is a marathon, and the playoffs a sprint.”
The Mustangs ran the marathon well. It began with some tough terrain this season, with road games against the two teams who have historically been the toughest road opponents for the Mustangs: the Coyotes and the Colorado Jr. Eagles. The Mustangs swept both series. They also swept a home-and-home with the Utah Outliers, another road series against the Vancouver Rangers, the Las Vegas Storm at home, the Superior RoughRiders on the road and then one more on the road against the Outliers.
In total, the Mustangs started off the season 18-0. It was the best start by a WSHL team since the 2013-14 season.
Five of the Mustangs’ first 18 wins came in overtime. The Mustangs have found ways to win all season long.: in overtime, coming back from large deficits, in tight defensive battles and in wide-open scoring battles.
The Mustangs went on to put together a strong showing in Las Vegas at the Western States Shootout in December, playing four of the top teams in the league. The Mustangs were one of eight teams out of the 28 there who picked up a point in each game they played.
In the second half of the season, the Mustangs faced the defending league champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads six times, all on the road, and went 3-3 in those games. Between the two separate three-game series against them, the Mustangs put together another impressive string of victories, winning 11 in a row this time.
“For us to find success we need to earn it,” Laime said. That’s been his rallying cry all season long. Laime was not shy in saying there were some wins early on in the season that the team didn’t earn. After a few wake-up calls along the way, by the end of the season, the Mustangs have a good sampling now of what it takes to win.
Matus Spodniak finished the season with a team-high and single-season-franchise-record 89 points. He caught fire in the second half of the season, right down to the final games. He is currently on a 10-game point streak where he has racked up 30 points total.
Spodniak’s native Slovakian countryman Vladimir Cibulka has been the other star of the show this season. In goal, Cibulka racked up 27 wins total, tied for best in the WSHL. His goals against average of 1.89 and save percentage of .934 were third and fourth best respectively.
The Mustangs are one of only two teams in the WSHL to have six or more players with 60 or more points this season. That depth up front has been a major weapon for the Mustangs as Spodniak, Montell Greene, Austin Shea, Henrik Axelsson, Alex Forbes and Corey Iapalucci have led the charge and each stepped up at different times, in different games to be key contributors.
The Mustangs have also been bolstered this season by some key additions as the year went along. Sage Fleming came in early in the season, providing a lot of speed and physicality. Francis Asselin came in as a third-string goaltender in the second half of the season and although he had a small body of work, put up some very good numbers. Brandon Barillaro came in a week before the trade deadline and has been a key offensive weapon. Austin Dittenhafer came in right at the trade deadline and has immediately shown his worth as a big, mobile defenseman with a scoring touch as well.
Right now the Mustangs are looking to head into the playoffs with all the right pieces in place. While no players are out indefinitely, the injury bug has taken its toll in the second half of the season. There are a few players currently listed as day-to-day, but none are ruled out for March 24.
As the playoff sprint now begins, the Mustangs look forward to having home ice for every game. Finishing first in the division gave them that right for the divisional playoffs, and with the WSHL awarding Ogden’s bid, the six-team Thorne Cup Finals will take place April 12-16 here in Junction City as well.