Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Often lauded for her strong defensive play, grinding forward Karlie Bell played the part of offensive hero for the MacEwan Griffins in Game 1 of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference final on Friday night.
Early in the third period, Bell drove down the left wing and sent a low backhander past Kaitlyn Slator and inside the far post for the only goal the Griffins would need in a 1-0 win at NAIT Arena.
That puts MacEwan up 1-0 in the best-of-five series and in the driver's seat as they quest for their third-straight ACAC Championship.
"It was exceptional and it's something she's been working on consistently this year and probably for the four years she's been here," said MacEwan head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "She's a big body and we've talked to her repeatedly about driving the puck and using her size. It was exactly what she did. She capitalized in the first five minutes, which is what we were hoping for going into period three."
The movie they've seen too many times before was playing out again as the Griffins carried the majority of the play only to run into a brick wall in Slator, who finished with 28 saves.
The ACAC rookie of the year was particularly outstanding in the first period when the Griffins had the Ooks on their heels the whole time. Slator stopped Chantal Ricker on a wraparound and then robbed Jessi Rampton on a one-timer from the slot.
Despite not scoring, the Griffins outshot the Ooks 11-4 – even hemming them in their own end while on the penalty kill – in as dominant an opening 20 minutes as they've had all year.
"Something we talked about a ton heading into this series is the emotional game always runs high against NAIT," said McAlpine. "We needed that great start to use the emotional edge to our benefit. That's exactly what we did.
"We're not a potent goal-scoring team. We've seen this all year and especially against NAIT. Our games have regularly been 1-1, 0-0. So, we knew it was going to be no different going into this series."
That's why it didn't destroy them when Slator kept making save after save. She stopped Jill MacWilliam alone in front and shut down Jayme Doyle on a one-timer in the second period and the Ooks started to respond to their goaltender's brick-wall play.
Verca Kuzelova was dangerous in the middle frame and manufactured NAIT's best chance of the game midway through. She picked a defender's pocket and cut to the net alone, looking to quickly tuck it five hole. MacEwan's Sandy Heim was having none of that, shutting the door for her best save of the evening.
Griffins players surround Sandy Heim after she closed out the fifth playoff shutout of her career (Matthew Jacula photo).
Heim was again sharp later in the second when Meghan Leblanc lunged at a stretch pass and tried to poke it through her legs to no avail.
MacEwan's goaltender, who is no stranger to pressure playoff situations, made 17 saves for the fifth ACAC playoff shutout of her four-year university career.
"Sandy was rock solid in net for us," said McAlpine. "I think the one thing Sandy has over Slator is the experience in these situations. Slator's a first-year goalie and this is now Sandy's fourth time (in the playoffs). She plays under pressure and we know Sandy comes up big in those moments.
"That's exactly what she did. She made a couple key saves for us, kept it at 0-0, as did Slator at the other end. It's going to be a goalie battle all the way through this series."
Game 2 of the series is set for Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena). Game 3 is Thursday, March 14 (7 p.m., NAIT Arena), while Games 4 (March 15, 7 p.m., DCA) and 5 (March 16, 6 p.m., NAIT Arena) will only be played if necessary.