Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Captain Cam Gotaas did a headfirst slip and slide across centre ice as his MacEwan Griffins teammates poured off the bench in celebration following one of the most important goals of his career on Saturday night.
The goal that ended a Game 3 marathon 3-2 over the Red Deer College Kings in double overtime and sent the Griffins back to the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference final for a third-straight year was an absolute beauty.
His laser from the right hash off the rush dinged the crossbar and fell behind the line, kicking off an eruption of raucous Griffins fans – including the still celebrating ACAC women's champion Griffins team – and a full dogpile on the ice from his teammates.
"Just the way the play developed, I knew we had four guys back and I was by myself, so I thought we've been funneling pucks to the net all night and I thought with this one maybe try to go up high on him," said Gotaas. "If it missed the net, we had four guys back, so it was just a risk play and it paid off."
Stefan Danielson kicked off the play by feeding Gotaas a stretch pass at the opposing blueline. There was extra space on the ice because the Kings were executing a change.
"I saw Cam breaking and I fudged one up earlier in the series to him on the breakaway," said the third-year defenceman, who was also Gotaas' teammate in junior with the Camrose Kodiaks. "I thought 'I have to hit this one.' And he had an unbelievable shot. I was about to change, but I saw it go in, so I went to celly with him. It was nice.
"That was a tough series," he added. "That was a championship series there and it was the greatest feeling in the world."
Gotaas was the first to admit his celebration might have been over the top – ("That was purely reactionary. It might have been a little bit overboard, but that was a big win for us."). However, pure elation (and some relief) was pouring out of a Griffins team that was pushed to the limit.
All three games of the series went to overtime in a war of attrition fought inch by inch between two teams that finished with the same regular season record.
"I have a ton of respect for that team," said MacEwan head coach Michael Ringrose. "They play the game with a ton of pace. They play the game the right way. They play between the whistles and they're not worried about engaging afterward, so I have a ton of respect for the way they conduct themselves and the way they play."
Gotaas sought out RDC captain Tanner Butler in the handshake line and conveyed his respect.
"I was talking with their captain on the ice – there's no winners or losers in this series. Yes, we get to go on, but hat's off to them," he said. "They were unbelievable. It could have gone either way.
"There's something about this group with everything that's happened, we're almost possessed to try to keep going and pushing forward," he added. "Luck was on our side tonight and hopefully we can keep it there."
Somewhere, their deceased teammate Nakehko Lamothe is an angel on their shoulders and never far from their thoughts. Every Griffins player is wearing a decal over their hearts and on their helmets that has Lamothe's No. 28 with the words 'Griffin Forever.'
"He's our motivation," said Gotaas. "I think everyone knows we're playing for him."
The Griffins have now earned the right to play in the best-of-three ACAC final next weekend against the winner of the NAIT Ooks and SAIT Trojans. Those clubs are tied 1-1 and will play the decisive game of their semifinal series on Sunday night (6:30 p.m., NAIT Arena).
"Obviously going through that, you certainly learn something," said Ringrose. "For us, our focus right now is just getting something back into the tank. We'll wait and see who we end up playing, but rest will be important for our guys to make sure we're ready to go for next weekend."
On Saturday, the Kings opened the scoring just 2:47 into the game when Game 2 overtime hero Dylan Thudium kept rolling, blasting a one-timer past Marc-Olivier Daigle from the slot after receiving a great pass from Trevor Costello in the corner.
MacEwan, however, quickly got even, scoring just 1:22 later as Brett Njaa chopped a rebound over Troy Trombley's pad with one hand and it trickled across the line before the Kings could bat it out.
Thudium hit the crossbar less than two minutes into the second period before Daigle robbed Mathieu Lapointe, who was in alone a couple minutes later.
But it was the Griffins who would score next as Garan Magnes nuked a powerplay slapshot through a Ryan Baskerville screen and past Troy Trombley.
The wheels fell off MacEwan's momentum train shortly after, though, as officials whistled the Griffins for six-straight penalties, two of which put the Kings on a two-man advantage for up to 42 seconds. They needed 28 of those to tie the game as Butler went bar down on a blast from the point.
MacEwan managed to fight off two more Kings powerplays in the first overtime session, albeit the second one was cut short on a Kings penalty 21 seconds into it.
"I thought our penalty kill … we made an adjustment tonight and I thought it was a very good one," said Ringrose. "I thought our penalty kill was good when it needed to be, and I thought our powerplay was good when we had the opportunity. Our special teams were difference-makers for us tonight."
MacEwan gained momentum from those kills and totally took control of the contest in the second overtime. The ice was tilted in RDC's end for several minutes, but they just couldn't beat Trombley. Gotaas was robbed in tight 38 seconds into the frame before Njaa hit the post and then went in alone on Trombley in tight, but the towering 6-foot-6 Sherwood Park product fell forward to erase the angle on Njaa's would-be roofer.
"I grew up with Troy," said Gotaas. "He's a heckuva a guy and he played such a great series. Hat's off to him. He's one of the best goaltenders in this league and he made it tough on us."
Trombley made 55 saves for the Kings, while Daigle stopped 47 for MacEwan.
Depth might have been the ultimate difference for the Griffins in a series that was separated by the slimmest of margins.
"I think we were able to use our entire bench for most of the night, so that allowed us to have more in the tank as things got deeper and deeper into the game," said Ringrose. "But you know that series was so close. It's literally inches.
"I don't know if I've been a part of a series ever that's that tight where it's gone to overtime in every game. The margin for error is so small, so credit to our guys for finding a way to get the job done in the end."