Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Deadlocked at a goal apiece, cross-town rivals MacEwan and NAIT needed a shootout to determine a winner in Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference women's hockey action on Saturday night at the Downtown Community Arena.
Ooks captain Brittney Savard threw a move on Griffins goaltender Sandy Heim and tucked the winner under the crossbar as NAIT skated away with a 2-1 victory that all but locks them into the ACAC's top seed come playoffs.
NAIT (16-2-2-0) is now six points ahead of MacEwan (13-4-2-0). Although the Griffins have a game in hand, they'd need some help to get top spot and there most likely isn't enough games left or enough help coming.
Despite the loss on Saturday, though, head coach Lindsay McAlpine feels the last regular season meeting between the rivals was an important tone-setter for the Griffins. MacEwan outshot NAIT 39-30 and generally deserved a better fate.
"The big focus for us was the D zone today," she said. "We gave up way too many point-blank opportunities where Sandy had to make really critical saves yesterday. I thought we responded really well with our focus there. D zone was much tighter, just harder working.
"We always talk about playing a suffocating system," she continued. "We did that way better today. In terms of giving them, those high end goal-scoring chances, they didn't have many. More of their shots came from the outside, so I think that was a big success for us."
Should MacEwan meet NAIT in the ACAC final – a feat that would require getting past likely first round opponent Red Deer College – McAlpine said they know what's in store.
"Like we spoke to the girls post-game, that series is exactly what I'd expect if we meet NAIT in the final," she said of the weekend that also included a 2-1 loss at NAIT on Friday night. "It's going to be a close defensive battle where a team will come out by one goal on either side. I think that sets the stage perfectly."
Just as on Friday, the Griffins scored first Saturday, but couldn't find a way to get an insurance marker or to make a 1-0 lead stand up. This time it was an opening-frame tally by Morgan Casson – who swung wide around a defender and ripped a bar-down beauty – that was the game's only goal for nearly a full period.
As she did on Friday, though, NAIT goalie Kaitlyn Slator wouldn't allow another, making 38 saves over 70 minutes of play.
NAIT's Julia Wing tied the score midway through the second period – her second tally in as many nights – when she sifted a seeing-eye point blast through traffic and past Heim. Heim ended up with 29 saves for the Griffins in defeat.
Two five-minute overtime periods solved nothing, so the shootout came to pass. Slator stopped Dominique Scheurer on MacEwan's first attempt before NAIT's Verca Kuzelova made a nice move and beat Heim five-hole. When Karlie Bell didn't score, it set the table for Savard to end it.
"Give them full credit," said McAlpine. "She put a gorgeous move on Sandy off the crossbar and in."
As a result, NAIT wins the regular season series between the two teams 4-2. The record is somewhat incredulous to close observers of the matches, though, as MacEwan outshot NAIT in every single game. Slator was the difference, though, stopping 204 of 211 shots thrown on her in six contests for an otherworldly .967 save percentage against the Griffins.
"Slator's a really good goalie and we need to find ways to be way grittier," said McAlpine. "We're expecting ourselves to capitalize on fancy pretty passing plays that aren't overly available, especially against a team like NAIT that clogs up the middle.
"We need to hold ourselves more accountable in practices now to be grittier on loose pucks and going into the hard areas of the ice. Yes, they're uncomfortable, but we need to be better."
Next up for the Griffins is a home-and-home against Red Deer College on Feb. 8-9. Saturday's game is at the Downtown Community Arena (6 p.m.).