OGDEN — A double-overtime goal from Kerry Kruzel after more than 97 minutes gave the Ogden Mustangs a 2-1 victory over the Utah Outliers on Sunday afternoon at The Ice Sheet, delivering back-to-back division championships for the Mustangs.
The win capped a tight three-game series that saw each game end 2-1, with two going to overtime, and sends Ogden into the Thorne Cup Finals, to be hosted at the Ice Sheet, with the event’s No. 1 seed.
The Mustangs won Game 1 with a 2-1 overtime victory on an Oliver Wieringa winner. The Outliers won Game 2, 2-1 in regulation. Sunday’s overtime game, dating back to last season’s division finals, now makes four overtime contests in the last five playoff games played between Utah and Ogden.
The Mustangs have won four Western States Hockey League division championships in their eight seasons in the league. This season’s title was the first won on home ice, ending a thrilling series that kept fans perpetually on the edge of their seats.
“I thought both teams battled,” Mustangs head coach Jake Laime said. “The Outliers were very prepared and put it all on the line. Defensively, they were the best they’ve been all season. I think we had flashes of brilliance, but it wasn’t consistent.
“Good tempo from both sides but, offensively, we should have been more opportunistic. (Artur) Ogandzhanyan and (Oscar) Wahlgren made huge saves. Hats off to both teams. Overall, it was a very tight, competitive series.”
Netminders on both ends turned away chance after chance. Utah’s Wahlgren faced 136 shots in the three games, allowing only five goals. Ogden’s Ogandzhanyan faced 84 shots, allowing only four goals. Ogandzhanyan has a .958 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1 in the playoffs.
Offensively, the series was a battle of patience for two teams otherwise used to racking up goals. The Mustangs had the No. 1 offense in the WSHL this season and each team averaged more than five goals in 53 games before the series.
In Sunday’s decider, Wahlgren and the Outliers were just 1:19 away from a shutout and the championship victory in regulation. But after Ogden pulled the goalie for an extra attacker, Harry Gulliver banged in a rebound for the Mustangs to tie the game and force overtime.
“It was a crazy moment,” Gulliver said. “We had loads of pucks not go our way so, when we pulled the goalie, I just went to the net looking for loose pucks, and then we ended up scoring. Scoring that one felt really good, but it was a team effort ... This was probably one of the most exciting series we have played, I think. To win felt really good because we all came together as team.”
For Kruzel, scoring a double-overtime winner — on home ice, for a division championship, in his final season as a Mustang — was a moment he won’t soon forget.
“It was unreal,” Kruzel said. “I really couldn’t believe I got it to squeak by. It’s a great feeling to win any game, but having it be for the division championship, in front of our fans, was special.”
After what was surely an emotionally and physically draining series, the Mustangs get more than a week to rest and prepare for hosting the Thorne Cup Finals, scheduled April 9-13 at the Ice Sheet. The top four teams advance out of preliminary play into the knockout rounds the final two days.
THORNE CUP SCHEDULE
TUESDAY, APRIL 9
11 a.m. — (4) El Paso Rhinos vs. (5) Bellingham Blazers
3 p.m. — (2) Edson Aeros vs. (3) Long Beach Bombers
7:30 p.m. — (1) Ogden Mustangs vs. (6) Oklahoma City Blazers
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10
11 a.m. — (5) Bellingham vs. (6) Oklahoma City
3 p.m. — (3) Long Beach vs. (4) El Paso
7:30 p.m. — (1) Ogden vs. (2) Edson
THURSDAY, APRIL 11
11 a.m. — (3) Long Beach vs. (6) Oklahoma City
3 p.m. — (2) Edson vs. (5) Bellingham
7:30 p.m. — (1) Ogden vs. (4) El Paso
FRIDAY, APRIL 12
3 p.m. — Semifinal 1
7:30 p.m. — Semifinal 2
SATURDAY, APRIL 13
7:30 p.m. — Championship Game