Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – It's a weekend the MacEwan Griffins men's hockey team has traditionally enjoyed to reset, rest and rejuvenate.
For three-straight years, the Griffins have earned a bye past the opening round of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference men's hockey playoffs by finishing in one of the top-two spots in the standings.
After missing out on that benefit by finishing just a point back of Red Deer College for second this season, it hasn't taken the Griffins long to mentally refocus for the fact they're playing in a do-or-die best-of-three series this weekend instead of cooling their jets.
No. 3 MacEwan (20-7-1-0) will open a quarter-final playoff series against No. 6 Concordia (11-14-1-2) on Friday night (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena, ACAC TV). Game 2 is set for Saturday (7 p.m., Clareview Arena, ACAC TV) and Game 3, if necessary, would go on Sunday (1 p.m., DCA, ACAC TV).
No. 4 SAIT (13-10-2-3) and No. 5 UAlberta-Augustana (14-13-1-0) will meet in the other quarter-final, while No. 1 NAIT (24-4-0-0) and No. 2 RDC (20-6-2-0) wait in the semifinals for the winners.
"We kind of knew it was out of our control," said captain Cam Gotaas of their playoff fate heading into the final weekend needing to sweep NAIT and have SAIT take at least one from RDC. "We needed help from SAIT, which we ended up getting. We just didn't do our part. We knew there was a good chance (we'd play).
"(Coach) Mike (Ringrose) has been driving home that it's not about the bye, it's about playing our best hockey going into it," he added. "We're prepared and we're not going to look past Concordia at all because they're a tough team. Hopefully we have a good series. It's going to be hard because they work really hard. It's going to be on us to show up at the rink and get those two games before they do."
MacEwan won all four meetings this season between the teams – 2-1 on Oct. 18, 3-2 on Oct. 19, 9-1 on Jan. 17 and 5-2 on Jan. 18 – but the Thunder isn't a team they can take lightly.
They did that once this semester and it cost them three points in a pair of losses at non-playoff team Briercrest.
"We've been playing well after Christmas – it was just one hiccup against Briercrest that everyone wants back (a pair of 3-2 losses – one in OT – on Jan. 31-Feb. 1), but in a way it was good to show us we can't take weekends off," said Gotaas. "I think we're playing really good hockey, but we're going to have to continue to climb the mountain.
"We've got to play Concordia and, not looking past them, but if we (advance) you've got to play another good team and, ultimately, you've got to play the best team at the end, whoever's left standing. Ultimately, it's playing better as the playoffs go on, but taking care of that first series (is key)."
To do that, MacEwan will need to lean on its depth, speed and lightning quick puck movement that often gives ACAC opponents fits.
"(Concordia's) a good team that works hard that's playing their best hockey," said Ringrose. "For us, we need to be prepared to match and exceed their work ethic. We certainly think we've got the depth we need to be successful in a short series. When you play up to three games in three days, you need that, and we feel we're going to use our entire bench. Those are all things we're talking about this week.
"Ultimately, though, it's the same game we've played all year. Our expectations are to come out, continue to skate and compete and execute on the game plan and go from there."
So, the playoff journey will be different for the Griffins than it has been in their three-straight championship seasons. But it's also a different team – with 13 first-year players – who are heading into a litmus test of pressure hockey.
The ultimate goal for the Griffins is to win a fourth-straight ACAC Championship, something only two teams have ever done in the history of ACAC men's hockey (NAIT from 1984-87 and SAIT from 2007-10) before they move up to the Canada West conference in 2020-21.
"Winning is something you need to learn how to do," noted Ringrose. "It's not something that just happens. You need to learn how to do it. We may have 13 first-year guys, but we also have veteran leadership that has won at this level and other levels. That's comforting, knowing that as a coach.
"Lots of conversations have taken place about what it takes or what it's going to take this weekend, but we're confident that our leaders in the dressing room will get those guys up to speed and understanding what it's going to take to be successful this time of year."