Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
PENHOLD, Alta. – Resiliency is stitched into the very fibre of the MacEwan Griffins persona.
Their folklore is well documented how they rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the final few minutes of the third period to stun the NAIT Ooks and win the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference Championship last year.
That perseverance was their guiding light again on Saturday night as the Griffins rallied from 2-0 down with four unanswered goals, punching their ticket back to the ACAC final with a 4-2 victory over the Red Deer College Kings.
"That's the thing about this group is they have tremendous resiliency and a whole lot of character," said Griffins interim head coach Michael Ringrose, who didn't need to say much after the first period. "For me, the message was simple: that was not our best and we knew it. But ultimately, it came from them. They knew they could be better and they committed to a man to put that forward and the results speak for themselves."
Incredibly, it wasn't the veterans who went through the ringer last year that led the charge, but rather a new hero. As if summoned out of the ether of the trademark rallying Griffin, newcomer Sean MacTavish – a transfer out of the NCAA – scored twice in the final 40 minutes to ignite MacEwan to a decisive Game 2 victory that sealed a sweep of the best-of-three series.
"Incredible," said captain Ryan Benn afterward. "Ringer said in the room that in a game like that you need a guy to step up and make highly-skilled plays and that's the type of player that he is. In a big moment like that, to have him deliver was just incredible. It says a lot about the guy that he is."
MacTavish got the Griffins on the board at 2:05 into the second period when he jumped on a turnover in the offensive zone and undressed Kings goaltender Mike Salmon.
RDC had a glorious chance to regain the lead when they were given a four-minute power play 2:21 into the third after Taylor Mulder was knocked off kilter in a scrum, regained his footing and head-butted a Kings player. But the Grififns killed off the entire double minor and Ringrose gave Mulder a chance to redeem himself with lots of board grinding ice-time in the final few minutes.
"Mulds was one of our hardest-working forwards tonight," he said. "It was an unfortunate play in the way it shook down. Our guys rallied around that and that was a huge kill in the game.
"The special teams battle has been huge against Red Deer all year and this weekend was no different."
MacEwan seemed to gain momentum coming off the kill and MacTavish scored the game-winner just two minutes after it ended, taking a sweet feed from Brett Njaa and burying a one-timer past Salmon.
"It's funny, a lot of our new guys were the ones that stepped up, but it's just the overall mentality of never panic, resiliency with this group," said Benn. "I think we saw it last year in the finals, too.
"We've been in spots like that and I think we drew on that experience and stayed calm. We knew if we kept playing, things would go our way."
RDC pressed for the equalizer, pulling Salmon with 1:39 left for the extra man, but Marc-Olivier Daigle was sensational again in the net, making a glove stop through traffic right before Ryan Baskerville took it the other way and hit an empty net with 41 seconds left to ice it. Daigle finished with 31 saves and stopped 64 of 67 shots against in the brief series.
"It means everything," said Benn of getting back to the final against NAIT, whom they beat for the championship last season. "We've talked about our rocky start with a new coach and since then we've really come together as a team. Tonight especially, I thought we looked like a team that's done it before and that was nice to see."
And so, it's on to next weekend when they'll play NAIT – who swept UAlberta-Augustana 2-0 in the other semifinal – in a best-of-three series to decide the 2018 champion.
"To make it to back-to-back finals is difficult," said Ringrose. "To go through a long season in a competitive league like this and grind it out all the way through the regular season and first round of the playoffs, it's obviously something we're proud of, but we're definitely not content either. We're looking forward to getting going next weekend and picking up that rivalry where we left it."
The Ooks (21-3-3-1) finished five points ahead of the Griffins (20-7-1-0) and won the season series 3-1. But the Griffins are coming in blazing hot with nine straight wins.
"It's exciting," said Ringrose. "It's not a cross-town rival, it's a close proximity rival that there's a history with. They're a premier program in the ACAC and have been for a long time. We certainly put ourselves in that category, too, so it will be exciting to get going and prep this week. I know our guys have been looking forward to the opportunity to see those guys again."
ICE CHIPS … Austin Hunter and Tanner Butler scored RDC's goals in the contest, both in the first period … Salmon made 27 saves in a losing effort … Njaa had two assists for MacEwan.