With the heartbreaking finish to the Ogden Mustangs’ 2016-17 season now a few weeks in the rear-view mirror, players, coaches and fans have had some time to reflect wholly on the season that was.
Overall, it was a season filled with franchise bests, yet another step forward for an organization that continues to improve year after year. In the end, the team’s first Western States Hockey League Thorne Cup Championship was so close within their reach, falling in the semi-final game to the eventual champs. Still, the Mustangs take pride in what was no doubt the best season in franchise history and one that elevated the Mustangs to an elite level in the WSHL.
“It was definitely disappointing not coming away with the Thorne Cup,” said Mustangs head coach Jake Laime, who just completed his fifth season with the team. “Overall, we competed right down to the very end, and when you look at how things ended up playing out, there’s no doubt we were capable of winning it all.”
Thorne Cup Finals Finish
The season-ending loss to the Wichita Jr. Thunder in the semi-final game of the Thorne Cup Finals is almost unbelievable to try to go back and think through.
Down 1-0 heading into the third period, the Mustangs came out and dominated the final frame, outshooting the Thunder 21-10 in the period. The Mustangs scored two quick goals to go up 2-1, totally shifting the momentum and nearly blowing the roof off the building as a big crowd at The Ice Sheet erupted.
The Mustangs had chance-after-chance to widen their lead, but weren’t getting the puck luck and got a few bad bounces down the stretch. The Thunder came back to score two goals on what were two of their only quality chances of the period. They then added an empty-net goal for a 4-2 final, and that was it. Just like that, the season was over.
“I went back and re-watched that game six times,” Laime said. “I really feel like we were the better team. It’s so difficult in that setting, with that much on the line, to put together what you believe is the effort that’s required and then come up empty. We should’ve won that game. Earlier this season, before we were executing at the level we needed to be, there were a few games we won where we probably didn’t deserve to win. That’s what’s so frustrating with this, to come out on the other side of that coin. We deserved to beat Wichita, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.”
The Thunder went on to defeat the Idaho Jr. Steelheads in the championship game the next day, capping off a remarkable run, going 23 straight games without a regulation loss to end the season. The Thorne Cup title was fairy tale ending to an unprecedented season that seemed to be written in the stars for them.
After the finals the Mustangs officially finished the season in the No. 3 spot out of the 27-team WSHL. A deeper look at the numbers from the six-team Thorne Cup Finals showed that the Mustangs were right there with the Thunder. The two were the only teams to go undefeated through the first three days of games.
Heading into the semi-finals, having played the same opponents, the Mustangs had a +9 goal differential, and the Thunder had +5. As expressed in person at the event and throughout social media, many felt the performances should’ve earned the two teams spots in separate semi-finals to allow for a possible Ogden-Wichita championship game, instead, the seeding paired the undefeated teams against each other in one semi-final, while the 1-2 Steelheads faced the 1-1-1 Valencia Flyers in the other semi-final.
Wichita finished the week 5-0 with a +8 goal differential. Ogden finished 3-1 and +7. Valencia was 1-2-1 and -3. Idaho was 1-3 and +1. The Long Beach Bombers were 1-2 and -8. The Colorado Jr. Eagles were 0-3 and -5.
Outside of the elite play on the ice for the Mustangs, the elite performance from the organization off the ice, hosting the Thorne Cup Finals at The Ice Sheet, also took notice. League officials as well as players, fans and staff from the other five teams constantly remarked, and were blown away by, the quality of the facility, staff and volunteers who made the event run smoothly and professionally.
The off-ice performance from the Mustangs organization set a high standard for future Thorne Cup hosts to maintain, as expressed by league commissioner Ron White during the on-ice trophy presentation.
A Season of Bests
The Mustangs finished the regular season with a record of 42-7-3. The 42 wins are the most in team history. That was aided greatly by an incredible 18-0 start to the season. Those 18 wins came in a variety of ways with multiple comebacks and overtime Ws. The takeaway was that this was a team that could face adversity, remain disciplined and find ways to win.
The Mustangs had six players finish the regular season with 60 points or more. They were one of only two WSHL with those numbers. The balanced offensive attack between those top six proved to be crucial throughout the season.
Montell Greene led the team in scoring for the first half of the season. Henrik Axelsson was the sharpshooter. Austin Shea scored the greasy goals in front of the net, but also scored a few of the prettier goals of the season.
Toward the latter half of the season and into the playoffs, Matus Spodniak took thinks over. His 89 points in the regular season was an all-time best, surpassing the previous single-season scoring record set by Adam Zöllner last season by 15 points. In the playoffs, the Slovakian sniper had 17 points, setting another record, this time overtaking Andreas Zöllner’s 2015 mark by five points.
Corey Iapalucci surpassed his former linemate Schuyler Seyfert for the all-time franchise record in total assists this season. He picked up his 108th on Feb. 25 to set the mark. The Canadian playmaker finished his three-year Mustangs career with 125 total assists.
The Mustangs allowed only 98 goals in the 52-game regular season. That was No. 1 in the WSHL.
Vladimir Cibulka was named the Mustangs’ MVP this season. The Slovakian goaltender finished the regular season with a 1.95 goals against average and .930 save percentage. He’s the first Mustangs goalie to average less than two goals allowed per game in a season. His seven shutouts this season are more than any Mustang netminder ever racked up in a career.
“I think this was a really good season,” Cibulka said. “ I’ve never played in front of better fans. The atmosphere at the rink was crazy every game. I still regret that we didn’t win the Thorne Cup, because we were really close, but that’s hockey. All in all, I’ve met a lot of new people, and I had really good time playing for Mustangs. I’m thankful for that.”
Cibulka wasn’t the only reason for the league-best goals against. The defense corps in front of him, although at times dealing with injury, provided physical play (see #HipCheckCity), quick puck movement in transition and a mobility that was unsurpassed by most opponents. Co-captain from Clearwater, Fla., Nick Frankich led the defense from day one.
“I am extremely proud of what we accomplished this season,” Frankich said. “Every single person on our team got better from beginning to end, and that’s what matters the most. How we ended the season, however, was a bit of a shock to everyone. Going 3-0 in pool play and then just completely dominating in the semi-final game against Wichita and falling short near the end of the game still doesn’t sit well with us. We know that we all gave it our all and tried the best we could to win the championship, but it wasn’t meant to be. It is so strange how we work so hard for eight months straight, and then all of a sudden you’re just finished. No more skating with the guys. People go home. It’s a reality check. The worst part of ending a season like that is just saying goodbye to the 24 brothers you have in the locker room. The friends I have made here are life long.”
The other co-captain this season was Alex Forbes. He and Iapalucci are two of only four players to ever play three of more seasons with the Mustangs. Forbes, from Elgin, Scotland, stands in the middle of a British pipeline of players that has benefitted the Mustangs greatly over the years, and will continue for years to come. Forbes has played the second most games in Mustangs history at 151.
“Being part of the mustangs for three seasons has definitely been an amazing experience,” Forbes said. “This last season was the best team we’ve had since I started here. Everyone was together throughout the ups and downs all season. Being part of the Mustangs isn’t like being part of a regular team, it’s a brotherhood that you’ll have for the rest of your life. I’d like to thank all my brothers for the time we’ve shared as well as the fans for supporting us along the way and making every game a fun atmosphere to play in.”
The Future is Bright
The Mustangs will lose Forbes, Frankich, Iapalucci and a host of other key contributors as they age out and move on. Three have already announced college commitments (Max Dorfman, Chandler Watson and Montell Greene), with more to come, continuing the Mustangs’ stellar tradition of placement in the NCAA.
Although six of the Mustangs’ top seven scorers from this season age out, as we’ve seen every season, it’s simply an opportunity for someone else to step up. Take Forbes for example. In his first season he had 22 points in 41 games as he was asked to play more of a depth, checking role. Last season he had 31 points in 44 games with a slightly elevated role as he worked hard to improve his game. This season he finished with 63 points in 55 games, centering one of the Mustangs’ two top lines, playing key minutes on the powerplay and penalty kill and coming up big in the clutch, scoring six game-winning goals this season. This is the kind of development and progress that Ogden Mustangs hockey is all about.
With nine players eligible to return next year (including veterans like Spodniak and Austin Dittenhafer, as well as up-and-comer Harry Gulliver) and Laime’s inbox already full of anxious new recruits, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be the next Mustang superstars. But considering how incredibly far this program has come in six seasons and how excruciatingly close this team was to winning it all this season, it’s already time to start counting down the days until September. It’s 121, by the way.