Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – If there was anything that separated the MacEwan Griffins and NAIT Ooks men's hockey teams in a Friday night match that will go down as an instant classic, no one could see it.
With neither of the cross-town rivals able to break a 1-1 draw through two periods of overtime, each will take a point out of the final home regular season game for the Griffins at the Downtown Community Arena.
In a game that featured end-to-end action, hard hits, tooth-and-nail board battles and a playoff-like intensity, goaltenders Marc-Olivier Daigle and Brenden Jensen stole the show, racking up 86 saves between them – 48 for NAIT's tender and 38 for MacEwan's.
It's hard to expect anything less from two teams who've met in the Alberta College Athletic Conference final the past two seasons, cementing a rivalry that was already as good as it gets given the close proximity of the Edmonton institutions.
"I thought that was two teams playing hard," said MacEwan head coach Michael Ringrose. "Both goaltenders had exceptional nights. The margin for error in that game was very small. They make one mistake and we capitalize, and it ends up in the back of their net. We make one mistake and they capitalize, and it ends up in the back of ours. It was a well-played hockey game.
"Now it's about recharging the battery and getting ready for what will be another tough game tomorrow night."
With the tie, the Ooks clinched top spot in the ACAC standings at 20-6-0-1. While the Griffins (18-7-1-1) no longer have a shot at first place, they are still in the driver's seat for second. A win over NAIT in Saturday's rematch (6 p.m., NAIT Arena) would clinch second and a first-round bye.
Even though Red Deer College hammered Briercrest 7-1 on Friday and have pulled even with MacEwan at 18-7-1-1, the Griffins would finish ahead on the regulation win first tiebreaker (currently 18-16) should they end up tied when the regular season wraps up on Saturday night.
"For us, the last two years, we did not get first place," said Daigle of a Griffins team that won both the 2017 and 2018 ACAC Championships after finishing second in the regular season. "Our goal is to end the regular season on a good note. We just want to be happy with the way we're at going into playoffs. Yes, obviously we want to get the bye, but if for some reason we don't get the bye, we want to be happy with where we're at and then get into playoffs feeling good about ourselves."
They certainly brought that effort on Friday night – a huge improvement over the way they played against RDC in a disappointing 6-2 loss on Wednesday that opened the door for the Kings, who finish against Briercrest on Saturday afternoon, to make a play for the first-round bye.
"It's kind of unfortunate we put ourselves in this situation where we had the opportunity to get that bye clinched in the previous games," said Daigle. "We knew what was at stake today and we didn't want to drop it. All the guys came ready to play and sacrificed the body, blocking some shots. We'll need the same effort tomorrow."
Daigle and Jensen traded big saves all night on Friday. Jensen had a hot glove stop on Matt Waseylenko in the second minute of the game before slamming the door on two Griffins' powerplays. Daigle kept it scoreless after 20 minutes by making two big stops with 51 seconds left, first on a point blast through traffic by Carson Beers and then robbing Tyler Robertson on the rebound.
NAIT finally opened the scoring 5:31 into the second period when defenceman Connor Vermeulen knocked down a Griffins' clearing attempt and fed Ryan Piche, who walked off the boards and sent a streaking Tanner Younghans in alone down low where he made no mistake.
Just over four minutes later, though, Griffins captain Cam Gotaas manufactured an inspired individual effort, picking the puck up at the blueline and weaving through a pair of defenders before deking out Jensen to tie the game.
For the rest of the night, it was a fantastic duel between the masked men. It was 'anything you do, I can do better.'
Jensen made a great reaction save on Nic Correale off a two-on-one just before Daigle made a scintillating stop to rob Brandon Ralph on a breakaway, somehow shutting down the half deke-through-the-five-hole move.
"He makes a save, 'OK, my turn now. I've got to answer the bell,' " said Daigle. "It's good. It makes the game enjoyable and keeps the adrenaline going. It's fun to be a part of for sure.
"Today, Jensen and I both played a good game, and both gave our teams a chance. I think fans in the arena today enjoyed that."
Daigle also stopped Robertson on a breakaway, while Jensen fought off a huge slapshot by Andrew Kartusch at the final buzzer to ensure the game went to overtime.
After an uneventful first overtime, the goalies stole the show again in the second. Jensen shut down Correale's nifty Glenn Anderson-like cut in on the net and caught a hot shot from Ryan Baskerville before Daigle stopped Ralph on a breakaway for the second time in the game.
Stefan Danielson blocked a massive slapshot at the final buzzer to preserve the 1-1 tie.
"Right in the ribs," said Daigle. "That's just an example – we all want to win in that locker-room and they're willing to do whatever because we know what it takes to win it. Guys are going to do whatever it takes to win it again."
And that's the most encouraging sign out of Friday for Ringrose.
"For me our biggest focus coming into the weekend was we needed to start trending in the right direction again," he said. "And we did. Tonight, it was nice to see 20 guys throughout the lineup competing, skating and getting back to what makes us good.
"The result – would we have liked to get two points? Sure. But I'm happy with effort, I'm happy with the process and as a coach, that's all I can ask for."