Overcoming adversity of a slow start has Griffins rolling ahead of ACAC final match against Ooks

Nakehko Lamothe takes a faceoff during a game against NAIT earlier this season. The Griffins and Ooks will meet in the ACAC Championship final for a second-straight year this weekend (Matthew Jacula photo).
Nakehko Lamothe takes a faceoff during a game against NAIT earlier this season. The Griffins and Ooks will meet in the ACAC Championship final for a second-straight year this weekend (Matthew Jacula photo).

Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Perched at the ready beneath the peak of the mountain is not a place anyone would have pictured the MacEwan Griffins men's hockey team at the end of October.

Yes, they did raise the program's 2017 Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference Championship banner prior to their home opener on Oct. 6 and marched into a new season full of optimism and confidence.

But it began to unravel that very night when the SAIT Trojans skated away with a 4-0 victory – the start of a string of four losses in six games to open the 2017-18 season.

That prompted a meeting, complete with self-reflection all around.

"It was actually a weekend against NAIT where afterwards we had a bit of a meeting after the second game," related Griffins head coach Michael Ringrose. "As a coaching staff, we took a good hard look at what we were doing and made a few adjustments. I think as a group of players, they were maybe a little bit more open to changing a few things.

"I see it as a turning point for us. It was a moment where we got on the same page. That led to what essentially since then has been a 20-3-1 record and a belief and a partnership with the players that we're doing things the right way."

That's also led to a second-straight berth in the ACAC Championship final, against the same team they beat for the banner a year ago, the NAIT Ooks. MacEwan is the hottest team in the league, heading into Friday's Game 1 (7 p.m., NAIT Arena) on a nine-game winning streak.

"When we do those things the right way, we're going to give ourselves a chance at success," said Ringrose. "As much as it was hard through the first few weekends, I think it was important. I don't know if we would be where we're at right now without having to face that adversity early on."

Assistant captain Nolan Yaremchuk noted the key to getting over the initial adjustment period under a new coach was a willingness on everyone's part to pull in the right direction.

"As a complete group, we just said 'OK, enough's enough,' " he said. "We kind of went back to some of the basics. Mike went back to some of the things we did last year. We adjusted to some of the new things he was implementing better. It was just a complete buy-in on all levels."

The Griffins now head into the finals on a roll with plenty of positive history against NAIT with which to reference. Their 2-1 series win over the Ooks last year was right out of the script of one of those underdog sports Hollywood movies.

Brett Njaa scored an unlikely overtime winner shorthanded in Game 1 by cutting through two Ooks defenders and ripping a shot top shelf while falling backwards. After NAIT won Game 2 in the DCA and were up 3-1 with a half period left in Game 3, the Griffins engineered a rally for the ages. They scored twice to send it to overtime and then Njaa potted the golden goal again for the team's first championship since 2004.

"For those of us that went through that experience, you can't even explain how much that means to this year," said Yaremchuk. "For one thing, we know we can do it. We can beat any team in this league. Two, you can never count yourself out. Even when you're down 3-1 with eight or 10 minutes left to go, you can't give up and you've got to keep going, stay even keeled and try to fight your way back."

Of course that's in the past now, but the Griffins have begun to play like that team again. Their will, drive, speed and great goaltending propelled them past Red Deer College in the ACAC semifinals last weekend. Marc-Olivier Daigle was exceptional in stopping 64 of 67 shots thrown at him in a two-game sweep.

"It's a different approach when it comes to playoffs," said Daigle, who led the ACAC with a 2.22 goals against average in the regular season. "I think everybody was really excited as a team. We had the bye weekend coming into the playoffs and we were really excited to play. The same goes for me. I was really excited to get in. I was ready to do my job and it worked out well.

"I think just the approach of playoff hockey and that type of energy, that type of atmosphere just makes everything better. That contributed to it. I was ready to go and showed up there."

If the Griffins get past NAIT, they'll need Daigle to be at his best again. But as last year showed, when Christopher Wray came into Game 3 against NAIT late in the third and held the Ooks off to secure the championship, MacEwan's depth between the pipes is enviable.

"Both (Marc) and Chris were exceptional this year," said Ringrose. "I think they pushed each other. Marc, in my mind, only got better as the year went on. He took a real mature approach to the day to day and a commitment to get better, a commitment to be successful. Those things aren't easy to do and he certainly puts the work in.

"You can't win championships without great goaltending and that's something that he was able to provide for us in the first series and certainly something we're going to need to be successful against NAIT this weekend."

Game 2 of the series is set for Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena), while Game 3, if necessary, is set for Sunday (6:30 p.m., NAIT Arena).

The Griffins won just one of four games against the Ooks during the regular season (3-0 and 5-2 losses in October, followed by a 4-1 win and 7-1 loss in a January series), but that adversity has only made them better.

"For me, every opportunity we got to play in a weekend series against NAIT was an opportunity to evaluate where we were at," said Ringrose. "If you look at the first weekend, the evaluation came back and we needed to get better. If you look at the second weekend, we were very good on the Friday and not very good on the Saturday. It showed us we still have work to do to continue to push to get better. It really allowed us to refocus on us and our game.

"I think those moments are important over the course of a season. Ultimately, now we get to try to close the loop. We've worked really hard to be playing our best hockey when it matters the most and we think that we are. So, going into this weekend, we're excited for the challenge."