Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Here we are again.
With 112 regular season games and 11 playoff matches in the books across the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference men's hockey ranks, the same conclusion has been reached as a year ago: the MacEwan Griffins and NAIT Ooks will meet in the finals.
In a déjà vu on top of a déjà vu, the cross-town rivals will meet for a third-straight year in the exact scenario – top seed NAIT will host No. 2 MacEwan.
The Griffins will be aiming to keep the rest of the script status quo, too – hunting for a three-peat after winning the 2017 and 2018 ACAC Championships.
"It's a fun feeling to win," said Griffins goaltender Marc-Olivier Daigle, the 2018 ACAC playoff MVP. "This year we're in the same situation as last year and the year before as well. We're the second seed going to NAIT, the first seed.
"It's just the emotion and all the joy that brought as a group is kind of what pushes us to want to do it all over again."
The best-of-three series kicks off on Friday night at NAIT Arena (7 p.m.), with Game 2 set for Saturday at the Downtown Community Arena (6 p.m.). Game 3, if necessary, is Sunday at NAIT Arena (6:30 p.m.).
Both of the rivals' previous finals meetings have gone the distance and there's little reason to suspect that won't be the case again. Although the parity in the ACAC was very strong this season, the Griffins and Ooks still rose to the top.
"We're proud of the program we run here at MacEwan and I know NAIT's proud of the program they run there," said Griffins head coach Michael Ringrose. "We've both been fortunate enough to find success in close series the last couple of years.
"Success breeds confidence and continued success. I think that's something you're seeing with both programs."
Both barely got here, though. NAIT was pushed the distance in their semifinal series with SAIT, while the Griffins went to overtime in every game of theirs against the Red Deer College Kings, needing a heroic double OT goal by Cam Gotaas in Game 3 to survive and move on.
"It was a tremendous series," said Ringrose. "It was very close. Winning close hockey games or winning the way we had to win two in that last series is definitely a skill. It's something that you have to learn how to do.
"We do have some guys who have been through it over the last couple of years that have led the way, but we have some young guys, too, who now have that experience to carry forward. That will be valuable for us not just going into this series against NAIT, but as the program continues for years to come."
Griffins players shake hands with members of the Red Deer College Kings after beating them in an ultra-close ACAC semifinal where every game went to overtime (Matthew Jacula photo).
NAIT won the first two games of the regular season between the teams (2-1 and 3-1 on Nov. 23-24), but MacEwan took three of four points against them in the last two (1-1 tie and 5-2 win on March 1-2).
The last contest was crucial for the Griffins, who needed to win at NAIT Arena to clinch second place and the first-round playoff bye that came with it. In other words, with their backs against the wall, the Griffins dug deep to find that championship character that's so often been on display the last two seasons.
Ringrose notes that starts with the finer details in their preparation.
"It's just the process. It's the way we operate on a day to day," he said. "Nothing changes. Obviously, the stakes are higher in a championship series, but nothing changes in terms of our approach.
"We're used to it. We practice hard every week and we compete hard for the entire season. For us, it's just become a process and something we know we need to go out and do on a weekly basis. This weekend, that's our focus – go out and take care of our process."
The Ooks offer a supreme challenge, boasting a deep stable of talented players.
"They've got depth at every position, their goaltending's good, their back end is good, their forward group is very strong," said Ringrose. "That program's got a lot of history and they've done a good job building it into a perennial contender.
"There's lots of good teams in our league. NAIT is certainly one of them. I have a lot of respect for the way they operate."
As for what fans can expect? Go back to the 1-1 draw between them on March 1 at the DCA.
It was an instant classic that featured the two goalies – Daigle and NAIT's Brenden Jensen – making a combined 86 saves as the action went end to end and was played with a playoff intensity.
"I cannot predict the future, but every time we've played NAIT, it's been tight," said Daigle. "I know Brenden Jensen pretty well and he's a good goalie. He can make some saves.
"Hopefully it's a good series for both us and we give fans a nice show. I'm sure it's going to be another tight series like it's always been since I've been to MacEwan. I'm looking forward to it."
ICE CHIPS … The Griffins are aiming to become just the fourth team in ACAC men's hockey history to three-peat, following NAIT (1984-87), NAIT (1990-92) and SAIT (2007-2010) … NAIT finished one point better than MacEwan during the regular season … Daigle comes into the series with the best numbers in the ACAC during the regular season, leading in GAA (1.85) and save percentage (.937) … Brett Njaa, the reigning ACAC most outstanding player, led the Griffins in scoring for a fourth-straight season with 14 goals and 35 points in 28 games and became MacEwan's career assists leader late in the season with 78 … Jake Mykitiuk led the Ooks with 34 points during the regular season … Brandon Ralph tops all NAIT scorers in the playoffs with six points in three games … Njaa (three goals) and Ryan Baskerville (three assists) are pacing the Griffins in the post-season … Daigle boasts a 1.61 GAA and .955 save percentage in three playoff games so far, while Jensen has a 2.39 GAA and .925 save percentage for NAIT.