Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Five points separated the MacEwan Griffins (17-5-2) and NAIT Ooks (19-2-3) when the dust settled on the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference women's hockey standings.
What will separate a champion from a runner-up?
We're about to find out when the cross-town rivals meet in the best-of-five ACAC championship series starting Friday (7 p.m., NAIT Arena). Game 2 will be hosted by the Griffins on Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).
"We're obviously really excited," said Griffins forward Amanda Murray. "It feels different because it's against NAIT. It's going to be really intense. We're all coming together as a team-first mentality now. It's all coming together, so hopefully we can pull it off."
Winners of two-straight ACAC Championships – beating SAIT in 2017 and Red Deer College in 2018 – the Griffins come into the affair loaded with championship experience. They're attempting to become just the third team in ACAC women's hockey history to win three titles in a row. The last to accomplish that feat was NAIT (2013-15), while Mount Royal did it from 2003-05 prior to moving into the Canada West conference.
If the Griffins can tap into the championship character that drove their efforts in claiming back-to-back banners, they'll have a solid chance.
"I'm hoping for the best," said MacEwan head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "I think the old quote that success breeds success is so true. We have the momentum rolling for us right now. That very important first game will be great for us."
MacEwan comes into the series battle-tested after beating the RDC Queens 2-1 in the semifinal, needing a 3-1 win in do-or-die Game 3 last Sunday to get the job done. NAIT, meanwhile, coasted past Olds College, outshooting them 64-28 and outscoring them 7-1 in two dominant wins.
NAIT won four of six meetings against MacEwan in the regular season, beating MacEwan 2-1 in a shootout the last time they met – back on Feb. 2. However, the Griffins outshot the Ooks in five of six meetings and outscored them by a combined 8-7 margin in them.
It's just that Ooks goaltender Kaitlyn Slator has often been a difference-maker, including when she made 40 saves in their most memorable meeting of the season – a 1-0 double overtime shutout outdoors in Falun, Alta. back on Dec. 1.
"Outstanding goalie," said McAlpine. "I think Slator's the whole package – she's a relatively big goalie, but she's got some pure athleticism where she moves very, very well. So, it's hard to beat her with a shot, but also hard to beat her with a great cross-crease pass. She seems to get over quickly to those positions.
"So, we've got to create traffic. We've got to take away her eyes and we've got to create second opportunities."
MacEwan had a tough time cracking Karlee Fetch in the first round against RDC, but they began to make strides in the net-front traffic department that can only serve to help them against Slator.
"We've been really working on screening goalies and getting in front," said Murray. "I think that's really going to help us because we didn't (do that well enough) at the beginning of the year and now we're getting really good at that. I think the more we get in front of her and get shots through from the D, it will really help us."
On the flip side, NAIT boasts the highest-scoring offence of any team in the league – most of it coming from their core of star players. Verca Kuzelova, Brittney Savard, Meghan Leblanc and Carlin Boey finished 1-2-3-4 in the ACAC scoring race.
In a fascinating matchup, they'll be going against the stingiest defensive team in the league. Led by goaltender Sandy Heim, who topped the ACAC in goals against average and save percentage, the Griffins allowed by far the fewest goals against of any team in the league – 16 fewer than second-best NAIT.
"The defensive side of our game is our strength," said McAlpine. "We build from our net front out and we always talk about that. They have four of the top five leading scorers. I would say the strength of NAIT is those top players, like Boey from the defensive zone. Kuzelova's whole line is 1-2-3.
"Our depth, I would argue, is definitely stronger than NAIT's," she added. "So, especially in a five-game series, we need to play to that strength of our depth – keep games going long and we should hopefully start to see our depth and conditioning pay off."
Following the first two games of the series, the teams will break for five days before resuming hostilities again in Game 3 (Thursday, March 14 – 7 p.m., NAIT Arena). Games 4 (March 15, 7 p.m., DCA) and 5 (March 16, 6 p.m., NAIT Arena) will only be played if necessary.