Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Before this weekend, the last time the MacEwan Griffins and NAIT Ooks met in a women's hockey game, they were getting snowed on.
Outdoors in the middle of a forest in Falun, Alta., back on Dec. 1, the Griffins and Ooks went toe-to-toe in a classic that the players will never forget. NAIT won the match 1-0 in double overtime as darkness began to descend as fast as the accumulating snow.
"It was definitely a cool experience being outside and having everybody come out and watch," said Griffins forward Karlie Bell. "It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
"Once it started snowing, it made for some cool pictures, but it was tough to play in. It was definitely not the same thing as playing on our home ice or inside, so I'm looking forward to get back out there and get back into a hard-playing game against NAIT."
The teams will meet for the final time this regular season on Friday (7 p.m., NAIT Arena) and Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena). Essentially, it's a first-place showdown as the Ooks (14-2-2-0) lead the Griffins (13-3-1-0) by three points atop the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference standings, but MacEwan has a game in hand.
"Not to say there's not other contenders in our league that can knock either one of us off on a given night, but really when it comes down to it for the playoff run, this is it.," said MacEwan head coach Lindsay McAlpine.
As evidenced by that outdoor game and other matches between the squads this season, not much separates the rival Edmonton institutions that are just two LRT stops apart.
"It was a very close game – a typical NAIT-MacEwan game," said McAlpine of the outdoor classic. "Very physical. A lot of chances both ways and 0-0 until double overtime and a minute left.
"I expect no different from this weekend."
Except the Griffins hope to be able to score and get in the win column. To be successful, they'll need to get traffic to the net.
"I think we're just going to have to set the tone ourselves and not let NAIT play their game," said Bell. "We've just got to do what we do and really focus on driving the net and getting in their way. Taking control of the game."
Body positioning and defensive shape have been key points of emphasis for the Griffins in their preparations this week.
"NAIT is so good at taking away time and space away from our girls with body position and physicality," said McAlpine. "It's something we've been working on playing against, but also creating that same tough style of play for NAIT. Our body position and taking away time and space is a huge one for us.
"Then of course we need to get pucks to the net and bodies to the net to follow it up. They've got a good goaltender. We're not going to score from the outside, so we need to be jumping on secondary opportunities."
Goaltenders on both sides are capable of stealing games – MacEwan's Sandy Heim leads the ACAC in goals against average (0.96) and save percentage (.952), while NAIT's Kaitlyn Slator is second in each category (1.45 and .941).
"The two goaltenders are arguably the best two goaltenders in the league," said McAlpine. "In women's hockey, there's not a ton of natural snipers. I think we need to score those gritty goals much more regularly if we're going to be successful against NAIT."
Prior to Saturday's game, a moment of silence will be held for MacEwan men's hockey player Nakehko Lamothe, who passed away following a Jan. 25 game in Calgary.
McAlpine noted it's been a tough week for everyone who knew him, including her players, who were friends with Lamothe. As they resume their season again, the Griffins are endeavouring to learn from Lamothe's legacy of dedication to the community and his teammates.
"I think the biggest message is everyone is talking so positive about the legacy that Nakehko left. I think for all of our girls, (the goal is to) take a piece of that and make yourself better, make yourself stronger," said McAlpine. "Try to bring something about him to your own personal growth and development. That's been a big focus for us. What would your legacy be if you left?
"I think you reflect in tragedies. Am I doing everything I can to be better? Not just better at MacEwan or better at hockey, but just to be better in our world on a way bigger scale. I think he was so good at that."
Inspired by Lamothe, the Griffins will continue to support community initiatives. They've long embraced that as part of their culture through the 'Griffs Do Good Deeds' program.
"Every time Lindsay has a different volunteer opportunity, she sends out an e-mail and it's signed up within seconds," said Bell. "Everyone's super willing to help and has embraced that side of athletics. It's really neat to see."
On Saturday, Bell will be receiving the Edmonton Police Service honour certificate, which is being presented to MacEwan female student-athletes for their contributions to the team and their community.
"She epitomizes for our team what it means to be a Griff," said McAlpine. "We talk about community engagement, athletics and academics – a three-pronged varsity athlete. Karlie Bell is exactly that. She strives for excellence in all of those areas. She does it with such grace. She's always someone I'm proud to put out in the community and know she will represent our team well."