Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The MacEwan Griffins are just 60 strong minutes of hockey away from a third-straight Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference women's hockey championship.
Such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, which is the trap they'll be trying hard to avoid heading into Game 3 of the 2018-19 ACAC final at NAIT on Thursday (7 p.m., NAIT Arena).
MacEwan leads the best-of-five series 2-0 after winning Game 1 (1-0) and Game 2 (3-2) last weekend.
"I would argue the toughest game of the series is to close it out," said MacEwan head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "We need to continue with that mentality of whatever works for us. It's a best-of-one now.
"We've got to go in thinking that this is going to be a tough one. We know NAIT's going to come out hard and I think we'll have to weather the storm, especially in the first period. Our focus is going to be: at the outset are we matching or beating NAIT's intensity and emotional investment?"
They didn't exactly match it in the first period of Game 2 last Saturday when the NAIT Ooks jumped all over them for a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, forcing MacEwan to rally back with three unanswered goals in the final 40 to take the win.
"We need to play a full 60 minutes. We can't take any dips," said Griffins defenceman Jaime Erickson, who had two assists in Game 2. "That's really what's been reiterated every time we come in at the period breaks."
And what the Griffins have been focusing on in practice this week. They were outshot 16-8 by NAIT in the first period of Game 2 before finding their game and dominating the rest of the way.
"I can only hope our team has learned the lesson that they need to," said McAlpine. "To put ourselves in a situation again where we've got to claw our way back from a two-goal deficit early on isn't what we're looking for in this third game.
"So much of this game is mental and those first five minutes for us our critical. That's going to be a huge focus for us and has been this entire week."
They at least have the blueprint. The way they played in the final two periods last Saturday was championship calibre. They ground the Ooks down with a ferocious forecheck, forced them into taking several penalties and crashed the net with reckless abandon as they scored three times on the powerplay to win.
"I would argue that was our best complete team game for two periods," said McAlpine. "The way our girls responded, I don't think I've seen that resiliency in them once this year.
"To come out now and peaking at the right time and playing for each other, capitalizing on opportunities exactly when we needed to couldn't have happened at a better time."
So, the Griffins are in a familiar spot – needing one win to clinch the ACAC Championship. When they beat SAIT in the 2016-17 final, MacEwan lost in their first attempt to clinch and needed to get the job done the hard way – on the road in Game 4. Last year, they won on their first attempt to do so, beating the Red Deer College Queens 3-1 in the series.
Erickson is one of 25 Griffins players returning from last year's championship and feels they can draw on what it took to accomplish that.
"I think it's a lot of game management and remaining composed," she said. "It's an emotional game. You just have to control your emotions and stick to your roles and play the game you know how to play. Just trust yourself and your team to be there for you."
Erickson's play has been key to MacEwan's efforts so far. Quietly and with little notice or fanfare, she's grown into a terrific player at both ends of the rink. Through five playoff games, she has a goal and two assists, while providing steady defensive play.
"Jaime always quietly gets on the scoresheet," said McAlpine. "She's one of our players who is underrated. She plays a critical role on our powerplay, she plays a critical role in our defensive zone.
"I always joke about with the coaches that if I were to throw my gear on and go one-on-one against any player on our team, my last pick would be to go against Jaime Erickson. She is exceptionally physical, but in the smartest way. She plays the body really well, distributes the puck really well – her first pass out of the zone, she's really deceptive.
"Jaime is a complete package defenceman who goes under-recognized in this league."