Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Gosh, have the Griffins and Queens ever had some epic playoff battles over the past two seasons.
Last year, MacEwan bested Red Deer College in four games in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference women's hockey final to claim their second-straight championship.
And two years ago, it took 256 minutes and 35 seconds of hockey to decide a best-of-three semifinal series between the rivals in MacEwan's favour.
That's the one that still stands out in Griffins goaltender Sandy Heim's mind as she started her ACAC record shutout streak – an unreal 287 minutes and 40 seconds that stretched into the final against SAIT.
"Literally, thinking back about it, I really don't know how I did that," she said. "I was just playing – I took shot for shot. It was amazing. I didn't think about the shutout streak. I was just playing. I was almost like a robot. I just did what I had to do to win basically.
"I didn't think a lot in those games. Somehow they never scored."
Heim was solid against the Queens this season, too, allowing just six goals against in four games, three of them wins. As she heads into the final playoff season of her ACAC career, Heim hopes to make a difference again.
The Griffins, who kick off their 2019 playoff journey in Game 1 of a best-of-three series against RDC on Thursday night (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena) are trying to become just the third team in ACAC women's hockey history to three-peat. NAIT last accomplished the feat from 2013-15.
"Winning a title is always why an athlete does everything," said Heim. "That's the reason why you practice hard. During the season, there are times that aren't easy. You're hurt – everything hurts sometimes. You just get bruises all over your body and it can be stressful with school, family and hockey. At the end, it's like a reward. You're the best."
The Griffins know the feeling of being a champion, but they must put together five wins over the next few weeks to bring the trophy home again. Game 2 of the series against RDC is set for Saturday night in Red Deer (7 p.m., Servus Place), while Game 3, if necessary, will be back in Edmonton Sunday (1 p.m., DCA).
First-place NAIT will host fourth-place Olds College in the other semifinal series with the winners meeting each other in a best-of-five final starting on the March 7-8 weekend.
The Griffins aren't focused on anything beyond RDC. They beat the Queens in five of six meetings this season, outscoring them 16-7 in the process, while finishing 11 points ahead of them in the standings. That doesn't mean they're taking anything for granted.
"I think of course, we have to build some confidence off our success against them in the regular season, but it's playoffs and it's a fresh slate," said head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "We have to also be cautious that the last game we played against them was a loss. Regardless of how many shots you put on net, we need to put pucks in."
The Griffins are trending in the right direction at the right time, coming into the series on a tear, finishing the season with three-straight dominant wins, including a 2-0 victory over Olds last Saturday where they allowed just 16 shots against.
"A lot of our girls who have been a little bit quiet throughout the year are starting to come through at this moment as the players we expect them to be, which is I think is part of that huge trend forward," said McAlpine. "I think lots of times in playoffs, your first line players are targeted, and your top defensive players will get shut down because other teams focus in on them. It's our secondary scoring that I think is going to play a primary role. It's those players right now that are peaking that are going to be instrumental for us if we're going to be successful in the playoffs."
And of course, they have their all-star in net; Heim led the ACAC with a 1.06 goals against average and .948 save percentage. She typically plays even better in the playoffs.
"That's Sandy's strength – both her emotional investment and her intense competitiveness," said McAlpine. "When you put those two things together and there's a semifinal and potential championship on the line, that's when we get Sandy's best games.
"When our team is successful, Sandy's at her best. That's something we'll hopefully be leaning on again in this first best-of-three series."
Heim will soon be finished a stellar four-year MacEwan career, which included winning the Griffins' female athlete of the year across all sports in 2017. After graduating, she will return to her home country of Switzerland and vie for a spot on the next Swiss Olympic women's hockey team.
"I think I may get a bigger chance once I'm back in Switzerland, so I can attend all the camps they have," she said. "Over the summer I attended camps and their feedback was pretty positive. But once I came back (to Canada), I was off the radar a bit."
But that's in the future. Heim remains focused on the task at hand – winning another championship.
"We have lots of girls who know what it feels like to win that and I think everyone wants to relive that again and again and again," she said.
"We play as a team. The passes are on point. If we continue playing like that, there's a really good chance to win the title."