Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Doubting the MacEwan Griffins men's hockey team is a fool's game.
Battling an injury bug so bad that they started three defencemen as forwards as recently as eight days ago …
Reeling from one of their worst losses of the season (6-2 to Red Deer College) just three nights ago …
Facing an arduous uphill journey, needing three points against top-seeded NAIT in their final two games of the regular season …
The Griffins still managed to claim the second seed in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference men's hockey standings (and the coveted first round bye that comes with it) after a 5-2 romp over the Ooks in the hostile territory of NAIT Arena on Saturday night.
"It's just character," said head coach Michael Ringrose. "Our group has been through it and understood we squandered an opportunity earlier in the week.
"We were able to dial things in and get things back on track. That led to two of the best games we've played this season to finish things off. It's certainly a testament to the character in the room."
MacEwan finishes the season with the same 19-7-1-1 record as the RDC Kings, who beat Briercrest 4-3 earlier in the day, but hold the regulation wins tiebreaker (19-17).
The Kings finish third and will host sixth-seeded Concordia, while SAIT and UAlberta-Augustana will meet in the other best-of-three quarter-final next weekend. NAIT (20-7-0-1) and MacEwan will wait in the semifinals for the winners.
It was a special regular season for the Griffins, who will be going for a third-straight ACAC Championship when the post-season gets underway.
"Obviously, it's a regular season this group can be proud of – scoring the most goals in the league and allowing the fewest, but also having the best powerplay and the strongest penalty kill," said Ringrose. "This group certainly has a lot to be proud of and that's something we build off of heading into the playoffs."
For a while on Saturday, it appeared both goalies might steal the show again, just as they did in a 1-1 draw between the cross-town rivals at the Downtown Community Arena on Friday.
It took until the game was 35 minutes and 52 seconds old before the Griffins finally cracked Brendan Jensen. Brett Njaa carried the puck over the blueline and dished left to Jacob Schofield, who whipped around a defender and sent a cross-crease pass for Tyler Morrison to chip into an open net.
Then the killer: Andrew Kartusch fired a powerplay buzzer-beater shot through traffic that Garan Magnes tipped under the bar, giving MacEwan a 2-0 advantage with three seconds left in the second period.
"Huge goal for us, without a doubt," said Ringrose. "There had been a lot of powerplays going back and forth and we found a way to be the team to get one in that special teams situation. Just a great shot by Karts in a timely moment. I can't understate how big that goal was for us."
After that the ice seemed tilted in MacEwan's favour. Ryan MacKinnon made it 3-0 Griffins 6:46 into the third period when he cruised in off the right wing and sent a shot on Jensen that climbed him, went up in the air and dropped in behind him.
That sent the man who stopped 48 of 49 against MacEwan a night earlier to the bench as Patrick Gora came on in relief.
The move shook up the Ooks, who got on the board just 33 seconds later when Matthew Dykstra snuck into a seam in the slot and buried Dylan Stewart's behind-the-net feed.
But Nolan Yaremchuk restored MacEwan's three-goal lead just 29 seconds after that, beating Gora on the first shot he faced – a 20-footer from just inside the blueline that eluded the tender.
Njaa fired a powerplay slapshot past Gora through a screen for a 5-1 lead with 6:20 remaining before Dykstra notched his second of the night off a crease scramble with 1:19 left in the game.
Marc-Olivier Daigle stopped 27 of 29 for the victory, finishing as the ACAC's top-ranked goaltender in goals against average (1.85) and save percentage (.937).
"We had a game plan and we stuck to the process and eventually it came through for us," said Ringrose. "We had some big plays along the way. You have a good goalie that you manage to find a way to get one past and things open up for you a little bit."
Ultimately, getting the first-round playoff bye is huge for a Griffins team that has some injuries in need of healing. But Ringrose noted seeing the team trending in the right direction and trusting the process heading into the playoffs is the real prize.
"If you control the controllables you have power over, usually the chips fall the way you want them to," he said. "When you don't take care of those things, they don't.
"I thought we got back to playing the right way – playing Griffin hockey – in the last two games here and the results followed. That was nice to see."