Bill McDonald says if you told him before the start of the season he’d still be in the hunt for first place with four games to go in the OUA season, he’d have been a happy hockey coach.
That said, the struggling Wolves have to figure out how to reverse their recent struggles, which culminated on Saturday when they blew a three-goal, third-period lead and fell 4-3 to Ottawa in overtime.
“We all talked about the schedule after Christmas and when you make these mistakes now against all these good teams, and when everything’s in the heat of the battle because everyone’s trying to get the points, your mistakes are magnified as they have been,” McDonald said.
The Wolves face their toughest – and most important – test on the road this weekend, taking on Western Friday night in a battle for top spot in the OUA West. Lakehead (15-6-3) has dropped four straight while the always powerful Mustangs (17-6-1) are coming off a 7-6 overtime loss to Laurier, snapping a six-game winning streak.
LU follows with a Saturday visit to Brock (12-9-3), who beat them 4-3 in overtime last month.
“Hopefully we’ll learn from our mistakes,” McDonald said earlier this week.
“It’s a real tough opponent. We have to have a good start against (Western) and keep playing and hopefully we’ll have a better outing than the last time we were there. I know they’re a good team, but when we were there last time, I don’t think we played well at all.”
The Mustangs dropped the Thunderwolves 5-1 at home on Jan. 11, the two teams each scoring a goal in the first. But Western pulled away with two in the second and two more in the third, the second of six losses in eight second-half games for Lakehead.
Captain Andrew Wilkins, named his team’s athlete of the month for January, admitted the adversity is starting to wear thin. But it might work in their favour too, he said.
“I think we were pretty upset Saturday night after blowing a third-period lead like that. There’s obviously something wrong if you’re not a little upset,” said Wilkins, whose regular season OUA career comes to an end next weekend.
“We were pretty positive today though. I think Billy reinforced us on a lot of positives over the weekend. Obviously we didn’t get four points, but we got a couple of points.
"We’re still in the thick of things, hoping to get first place in the division. It’s a big weekend coming up.”
Reflecting on negatives won’t do anyone any good in the dressing room, he added.
“We’ve just got to move on.”
The Mustangs won’t be easy, but with six losses this season, they’re not unbeatable, despite the Wolves lack of recent success against the Clarke Singer-led team. Western has won eight of the teams’ last nine meetings – though Lakehead did manage a split in 2012-13.
Wilkins said he’s not sure the Wolves recent struggles are tied to them starting to feel the pressure of their first-half start.
“Obviously the games are a lot tougher, but it’s what we expected. The whole league itself from top to bottom, there’s tons of parity in it. We know we’re not going to win every game and it’s going to be tough, but these are the games that groom us for playoffs and we’ve got to learn our lessons as we go on.”
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