Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – On paper, the matchup is as lopsided as they come.
The MacEwan Griffins finished a full 26 points ahead of the Olds College Broncos in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference women's hockey standings.
Head to head, the Griffins won five of six meetings between the teams this season, outscoring the Broncos 23-7.
Furthermore, while MacEwan scored 36 more goals than they allowed this season, Olds let in 39 more than they scored.
All of that said, the road to ruin is littered with Paper Tigers. So, not taking anything for granted is the biggest challenge for the Griffins as they kick off their ACAC championship defence against Olds with a best-of-three series this weekend. Game 1 is set for Thursday (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).
"Obviously on paper, this series is in our favour," said Griffins head coach Lindsay McAlpine, who guided her team to an ACAC-best 18-3-3-0 record this season. "I think that's one of the dangers for us mentally coming into this series against Olds.
"Olds is a team that doesn't quit, regardless of the score. There have been games where we're up by five goals and they claw their way back to make it a tighter third period. I think it's that mental side of the game that we've really been talking about and focusing on this week."
When the Broncos have success, such as a 2-1 double overtime win over MacEwan back on Nov. 10, it's been when they've outworked teams.
"They don't give up pucks," explained Carley Jewell, who led the Griffins with two goals and nine points in games against the Broncos this season. "I think they get better as the game progresses. They just continually try harder each period. They come out with a different hard-working mindset and they just push throughout the whole game."
Not only that, but the Broncos will be hungry in the first playoff appearance in program history.
"This is their first year in playoffs, so they're going to be fighting for it," said Griffins forward Raven Beazer, who produced three goals and seven points against them this season. "They want it just as bad as we do. They have something to prove."
But so do the Griffins. They've had a target on their backs all season as the ACAC defending champions and, for the most part, have passed the test with flying colours. They won five straight to close out the season and overtook NAIT for the No. 1 seed on the final night of the campaign.
"That has been our conversation is that we've got to take this game by game," said McAlpine. "Just because we clinched first doesn't give us an automatic chance to play for a championship again.
"Olds is a team that can't be taken lightly. I think a big focus for us is matching their work ethic. We are a more skilled team, so that's going to be a challenge for us."
In many ways, the series will be a battle of goaltending, too. Olds boasts the conference's busiest tender – Jaydlin Spooner – who stopped 558 shots in 19 games played. That's an average of almost 30 shots a night and against the Griffins she has routinely faced more than 40.
MacEwan rides a tandem that's unmatched in the ACAC. Starting goalie Sandy Heim is the reigning conference MVP and needs no introduction after what she did in the playoffs a year ago, setting a new ACAC playoff shutout streak standard by not allowing a goal in 287 minutes, 40 seconds.
Meanwhile, Griffins backup – rookie Natalie Bender – just wrapped up the best regular season by a goalie in the modern history of the conference. Behind six shutouts, she posted historic numbers – a 0.66 goals against average and a .970 save percentage. Those are the best by any ACAC women's hockey goalie in the conference's recent recorded history (ACAC women's hockey statistics from before 2000 are unavailable).
"Good on her," said McAlpine. "I think it's a combination of the defensive structure that we've put up in front of her and just her ability to transfer her athletic knowledge and that competitive edge that she has from other sports into hockey. I think she's embraced it. She came in for her rookie season with no expectations, which I also think helps. She obviously exceeded ours and, I think, her own.
"I think it sets us up really nicely going into playoffs. When you've got two goalies that you can go back and forth with it's a nice thing to have in your back pocket."
Heim's numbers weren't as strong as last season (1.83 and .917), but her playoff pedigree is unmatched among current ACAC goaltenders. She was in the crease for every one of MacEwan's seven playoff games last year and made the final saves that secured them the program's first championship banner since 2008.
"Her numbers don't worry me at all this year," said McAlpine. "She's someone I know thrives under pressure and I think we'll just see the best Sandy from here on in."
Game 2 of the series is set for Olds Sportsplex on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, will go Sunday (1 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).
No. 2 NAIT (18-4-2-0) will host No. 3 Red Deer College (14-5-5-0) in the other best-of-three semifinal. The semifinal winners will meet in the ACAC best-of-five championship final.