A year after epic first-round battle, Griffins face Queens with second-straight ACAC title on the line

MacEwan's Shanya Shwetz battles Red Deer College's Julia Murrell during their first-round playoff match last season. The Griffins needed 14 periods of play to finally eliminate the Queens in three games (Nick Kuiper photo).
MacEwan's Shanya Shwetz battles Red Deer College's Julia Murrell during their first-round playoff match last season. The Griffins needed 14 periods of play to finally eliminate the Queens in three games (Nick Kuiper photo).

Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – For 14 epic periods over the span of three games last year, the MacEwan Griffins and Red Deer College Queens did battle in the opening round of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference playoffs.

The hockey was a tight-checking detail-focused masterpiece that featured two goaltenders who refused to yield in the face of enormous pressure.

Backed by Sandy Heim's ACAC record shutout streak (168 minutes and 48 seconds), the MacEwan Griffins eventually found a way, beating the Queens 2-1 to advance to the final where they claimed their first ACAC banner since 2008 with a 3-1 win over SAIT.

"It was crazy, for sure," said Heim of last year's series against RDC, especially Game 2, in which MacEwan won 1-0 in triple overtime. "We both got more than 60 shots. They were really good chances on both sides. It was just hilarious. It was probably the game of my life."

So, ready for Round 2?

The bell tolls on another showdown between the Griffins and Queens – this time with the ACAC title on the line – as the best-of-five 2017-18 women's hockey final opens on Thursday (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).

"I think we're definitely looking forward to it," said Griffins assistant captain Shanya Shwetz. "Us and Red Deer are very similar in the way we play. We both have very good skaters, we have good battle and phenomenal goalies behind us.

"We're excited to compete against them because it will be very competitive back and forth. It will definitely be whichever team can score more goals in the end."

That sounds cliché, but it's a really succinct analysis of two teams who thrive on stingy defensive zone play – MacEwan allowed just 1.42 goals a game, while RDC let in 1.5 on average during the regular season.

That said, the Griffins dominated the win column in the season series, claiming five of six meetings between the teams, even if none of them were by more than two goals and two were in shootouts. The Griffins outscored the Queens 13-7 in those contests, scoring at a clip well above RDC's season average.

"When we play against Red Deer offensively, we're pretty good," said Heim. "The key will be our D zone, for sure. We've got to keep them outside the slot."

And in that regard, the devil's in the details. Positioning, stick work, breakout passes, defensive box-outs, board play – you name it, the winning team in this series will have done more of it better.

"I think that's been a focus for us since camp in August," said MacEwan head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "We talk about details excessively as a group.

"The wins over Red Deer have been by one or two at best with two shootouts. We know it's going to be a series that comes down to details."

RDC's Tracie Kikuchi was the busiest netminder in the ACAC, logging more than 1,300 minutes of work in playing all but two games for her team during the regular season. Her numbers for that large of a workload are outstanding – a 1.42 goals against average and .945 save percentage. The Griffins know what they're up against.

"You know, she's an excellent goaltender," said McAlpine. "I think the biggest thing for us that we've worked on all season is that net traffic – that presence close to the paint area – tracking rebounds. She's not going to give up that first shot from the outside. We've talked about that throughout the year, but also in this last week we've really focused on it."

Added Shwetz: "To know you have a goalie that's solid in net, you definitely have to think about where you're shooting it and get the best opportunities as possible. I think even going into practices, it's a focus to not just put the puck on the net but in the net. If we're going to shoot it right at her, she's going to make that save. We're going to have to be able to beat her, rather than let her beat us."

Of course, the Griffins boast an equally imposing tandem in the crease. Heim seems to save her best stuff for the post-season. She hasn't allowed a goal in this playoff yet, shutting out Olds in her only start so far.

Backing her up is rookie Natalie Bender, who is coming off the best regular season by an ACAC women's hockey goaltender since at least 2000 (the farthest back conference records go) with historic numbers (0.66 GAA and .970 save percentage).

Regardless of how the series goes, the Griffins can take a lesson from the first round of the playoffs. They all watched NAIT lose a 3-0 lead in Game 3 against RDC last Sunday, losing 4-3 in stunning fashion because they didn't play for 60 minutes.

"I think that's something we have to (take to heart) is that any team can win," said Shwetz. "When it comes down to it, you could be leading a series and the other team could come back and win it all.

"You can't sit back on your heels and wait for something to happen. You can't play to not lose because if you do, the other team's definitely going to capitalize."

ICE CHIPS … The ACAC women's hockey major awards winners and All Conference teams will be announced prior to Game 1 … Game 2 of the series is set for Saturday at the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer (7 p.m.) … The rest of the series will be played on the following weekend: Game 3 (March 8, 7 p.m., DCA), Game 4, if necessary (March 9 at Enmax Centrium, 7 p.m.) and Game 5, if necessary (March 10, 6 p.m., DCA).