Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Fittingly, it was Brett Smythe who buried the puck in an empty net with 1.7 seconds left, putting the icing on top of a sweet-tasting 5-2 Game 1 victory for the MacEwan Griffins on Friday night.
Earlier in the evening, he scored a crease-crashing goal, set up another, drew two key penalties and generally gave the NAIT Ooks fits in the opening game of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference championship series at NAIT Arena.
"He's a big-game player, who shows up when it matters most," said MacEwan head coach Michael Ringrose. "He got a couple of goals tonight – one was an empty-net goal but the other one was just being around the net and willing to go to the hard areas. Credit to him for finding a way to get a couple for us tonight."
The victory moves the Griffins a win away from a third-straight ACAC Championship. They'll have an opportunity to clinch on home ice Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).
So far, in seven games between the cross-town rivals in the finals over the last three seasons, the home team has lost every one. If the Griffins are to change that, they know they'll need their best on Saturday.
"We've just got to realize they're fighting for their lives tomorrow," said Smythe. "They're going to come out with everything they have.
"If we want to close it out at home, which we really do, we've got to come out and give 100 per cent effort."
In other words, come out exactly like they did in the first period on Friday. The Griffins were relentless with their forecheck and set the tone for the game by playing much of the first period in NAIT's end.
"Our guys were ready," said Ringrose. "I knew they would be by the way they practiced all week. I thought they carried that right into the first period tonight.
"We got the start that we needed to ultimately set the tone for the rest of the game."
Brett Njaa opened the scoring for the Griffins 7:49 into the contest just as a MacEwan powerplay expired. He spun around in the slot and rifled a shot over goalie Brenden Jensen's shoulder.
Ryan Hartman, who had a beastly crease-crashing evening – wreaking havoc around the blue paint – nearly put the Griffins up 2-0 in the late stages of the opening stanza when his tip went off Jensen's shoulder and the crossbar but stayed out.
"That's a hell of a team over there," said Smythe. "We knew if we give them anything they're going to take a mile. We knew we had to come out strong and make their defence turn and try to make them play in their own end as much as we could."
The Griffins kept coming as the second period opened. Just 1:34 in, Smythe sent a gorgeous cross-ice seam pass to Stefan Danielson for a one-timer that hit the twine.
Puck movement was key all night for the Griffins.
"I just thought we transitioned pucks really well," noted Ringrose. "Our defence moved pucks. We were able to break some pressure and push pucks 200 feet and played in their end a little bit, which ultimately led to some success for us."
Cam Gotaas then intercepted Jensen's clearing attempt behind his net and fed Njaa in the slot, who went around the diving goaltender and, in the ensuing scramble, Jacob Schofield jammed it into the open net at 8:01 for what would stand up as the game-winner.
NAIT called a timeout, but it didn't work.
Brett Smythe celebrates after tapping in MacEwan's fourth goal of the game late in the second period (Matthew Jacula photo).
The Griffins went up 4-0 before the period was out as Tyler Morrison's point blast went off Hartman's leg in front, right to Smythe for an easy tap-in.
"It was just a good play," said Smythe. "I was trying to get a screen on Jensen there. I think we had a few bodies and we threw it to the net like we were trying to do. Hartsy got a tip on it. I think it bounced right off his pad to me."
NAIT fought back with a much more spirited third period and scored twice to make it interesting as Tanner Younghans intercepted a MacEwan clearing attempt and wired it through the five-hole on Marc-Olivier Daigle 4:49 into the final fame before Tanner Dunkle beat him on a blocker-side snapshot with 3:20 remaining.
But the Griffins fought off the comeback attempt and Smythe hit the empty net to seal it.
Included in Daigle's 25 saves for the Griffins was robbing Curtis Roach on a second-period one-timer and stopping Jake Mykitiuk on a breakaway with five minutes left.
Marc-Olivier Daigle stops NAIT's Jake Mykitiuk on a breakaway with five minutes left in the game (Matthew Jacula photo).
Jensen made 34 saves for the Ooks.
So, we go to Game 2 where the trophy will be in the house. The Griffins will be treating it just like another hockey game, though.
"I think we're going to see their best effort tomorrow night and we've got to be ready for that," said Ringrose. "The message for the guys after the game was let's keep it simple and learn from years past and be ready to go in Game 2.
"I expect nothing but their best tomorrow night. We're going to need nothing but our best to get the job done."
Should a Game 3 be required, it will be played on Sunday (6:30 p.m., NAIT Arena).