THUNDER BAY – Dylan Butler and the Lakehead Thunderwolves have their backs up against the playoff wall.
Buried in ninth place in the OUA West standings, the hockey Wolves are in danger of missing the post-season for the second time in three seasons – and just the second time since returning to the league in 2001-02.
The task ahead is not an enviable one.
This weekend they travel to London, Ont., where they’ll face their long-time rivals, the Western Mustangs, in a do-or-die situation.
As it stands, the ninth-place, 11-14-1 Thunderwolves are a point behind eighth-place Toronto (10-12-4), and just three points behind fourth-place Windsor (13-13-0).
In between are York (12-2-2), Guelph (11-11-4) and Laurier (12-13-1).
The simplest solution would be to win their way in. If they collect a pair of victories on the road this weekend – and they already beat Western 3-0 earlier this season – they’ll likely work their way into the playoffs, though the math does get complicated with so many teams in the mix.
Should Toronto lose both its remaining games to Guelph and Laurier, the Thunderwolves would need to pick up a point against the Mustangs, having one more win than Toronto, the first tiebreaker. They also beat the Varsity Blues twice in two meetings, which also gives them the second tiebreaker. Of course, Waterloo could have a say in the matter too, with Laurier and Windsor left on their slate. The Warriors are tied with LU with 23 points, but have two fewer wins.
Butler, named the hockey squad’s player of the month for January, said he’d trade the award for a little more team success, the Thunderwolves dropping six of eight games played in the month.
“I think if we win out then it’ll position us pretty well and I think we should have a pretty good chance of getting in,” said Butler, who scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Windsor on Jan. 12 and had another two-goal effort later in the month against Brock in a 6-2 loss.
The fifth-year forward said they know what they have to do to get the job done. It’s just a matter of executing the game plan.
“We’ve played Western already. We know what they’re going to be like. They’re going to be pretty similar to Guelph. They’re going to be highly skilled and we’re going to have to play that game where we’re eliminating every opportunity that they have,” said Butler, whose OUA career could come to an end on Saturday night.
“We can’t give up tons of scoring chances because they’re going to put the puck in the back of the net. We’ve just got to play our tight defensive game and hopefully put the puck in the back of the net when we have a chance.”
Coach Andrew Wilkins said he wants his troops to stay within the system and keep things simple. In other words, don’t get ahead of themselves looking beyond the Mustangs.
That’s a sure-fire way to come out on the losing end of things.
“Hard work is huge, winning one-on-one battles,” Wilkins said, encouraged that many of his players managed to step up and play their best hockey in weeks, many senior players facing the possibility of never playing another game at Fort William Gardens.
“We’re going to need that. When it is emotional, you have to use it the right way.”
Wilkins admitted the possibility of a rare playoff miss is weighing on both the players and the coaching staff.
“I think anytime you’re in a spot where you’re in a situation where you have to win to get into the playoffs and if you lose you’re not in the playoffs, I think any athlete playing at a high level is focusing on it. We have talked about and we’re just looking to get the best out of the situation.”