Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Reaching deep into the arsenal of weapons at their disposal, the MacEwan Griffins proved they can play with speed and pace, while also handling the rough stuff with equal aplomb in blasting the NAIT Ooks 7-3 in Game 1 of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference final on Friday night at NAIT Arena.
The Griffins built a 5-1 lead on the backs of speed and forechecking in the second period and then repelled a very physical rally attempt by the home side in the third to seal a victory that has them a win away from repeating as ACAC champions.
MacEwan will have a chance to win the title on home ice when they host the Ooks in Game 2 of the best-of-three series on Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena). Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for Sunday (6:30 p.m., NAIT Arena).
"That's one of the great things about this team is we have so many different weapons in the chest that we can go to," said head coach Michael Ringrose. "We can play that hard, heavy physical game and you saw that in the defensive zone from us tonight. We can play with speed and pace and you saw that through the neutral zone in the second period.
"So, when the game gets more physical at the end there, we're able to stand our ground."
Sean MacTavish scored his fourth goal in three playoff games to open the scoring just 4:21 into the contest after potting a rebound left in the wake of Tyler Mrkonjic's power move through the crease.
"In the first period, I thought both teams played nervous," said Ringrose. "I thought both teams kind of waded their way into the game. We were fortunate to get a goal early, which gave us some confidence. We were able to build off that a little bit."
Did they ever.
MacEwan went up 2-0 6:24 into the second when Mrkonjic took a pass from Brett Njaa and deked out goalie Nathan Park. It was 3-0 just two minutes later off Tyler Morrison's seeing-eye laser through traffic from the point.
NAIT responded just 43 seconds after that, though, when Griffins goalie Marc-Olivier Daigle wandered into the corner to play a puck and he didn't get set in time to stop a one-timer by Tanner Younghans.
However, the Griffins just kept coming in waves at a beleaguered Park. Morrison restored a three-goal lead for MacEwan at 10:24 when he flew down the wing, feigned a pass and ripped it top shelf.
"The first one, great job getting off the wall," said Ringrose of his defenceman, who was named MacEwan's player of the game. "He's such a good skater. He works to the middle of the ice and was able to find a lane to get one through.
"The second one, that's a world-class shot. The deception on the fake pass, to turn and put it where he did. That was a special goal."
It also spelled the end of the night for Park, who was replaced by Patrick Gora in the NAIT crease. But MacEwan's Stefan Danielson beat him with the first shot thrown his way, just 33 seconds into his night.
"I really thought the second period was our best period," said Ringrose. "I thought we took over the pace of the play. We were able to generate some good forechecking pressure, some offensive zone time and we were able to get some pucks to the net. Good things happen when you do that. What you saw tonight in the second was a result of that."
A pair of NAIT players push Tyler Mrkonjic into goaltender Nathan Park as the net comes dislodged in a wild goal-mouth scramble on Friday night (Matthew Jacula photo).
NAIT got within two goals in the third period as they won space with spirited physical play. Tyler Kunz and Matt Mcneil made it a 5-3 game with 9:48 left.
So, when Cameron Gotaas converted a one-handed Brett Smythe pass through the crease at 12:20, the Griffins breathed a sigh of relief. Nolan Yaremchuk hit an empty net with three minutes left to ice the win.
"We shot lots. We hunted pucks a lot that second period," said Njaa. "We were all over them with a lot of pressure. If we can get back to that … we let up a little bit in the third. But they pushed. They're a good team and have pushes. We handled it well. We got that sixth goal, which was very big and we shut it down from there."
It didn't come without some bruises, however. MacTavish was hit hard from behind, but returned to the game. But Gotaas didn't after being checked into the NAIT bench door that opened when he went into it.
Ultimately, the Griffins weathered the physical storm well and hung on to the win.
"What did they have? One or two powerplays tonight?" asked Njaa (it was two). "So, we were disciplined. We took the hits and didn't retaliate. That was really good to see."
ICE CHIPS … Daigle made 37 saves, including several spectacular ones through traffic to preserve the win for MacEwan ... Prior to the game, the ACAC named its major award winners … Brett Njaa (MacEwan) took home the ACAC most outstanding player award … The rookie of the year was goalie Payton Lee (SAIT), while the coach of the year went to Trevor Keeper (RDC) … The All Conference First Team included two Griffins – Marc-Olivier Daigle and Brett Njaa – and also Tanner Butler (RDC), Ty Stanton (NAIT) and Tyler Berkholtz (RDC) … The Second Team is comprised of Dan Dekoning (Breircrest), Corey Chorneyko (NAIT), Jimmy Sheehan (UAlberta-Augustana), Joel Hamilton (SAIT), Mitch McMullin (UAlberta-Augustana) and Adam Wheeldon (Concordia).