Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The ability to play great in all 60 minutes of a hockey game is an elusive gem that teams are constantly searching for.
The MacEwan Griffins were the better team for much of Saturday's men's hockey contest against NAIT at the Downtown Community Arena, but a 15-minute lapse over the first and second periods proved too costly to overcome in a 3-1 loss to their cross-town rivals.
"To be honest, I thought for about 10 minutes at the end of the first period and five minutes of the second they were the better team," said MacEwan head coach Michael Ringrose. "Other than that, I thought we pushed the pace and did lots of things really well and were unfortunate not to get a better result tonight."
Indeed, they were, hitting two posts and a crossbar throughout the evening, including Tyler Morrison's blast off the iron with 31 seconds left that would have tied the game. NAIT's Curtis Roach hit the empty net on a 200-foot clear with one second left to make it a two-goal score.
MacEwan started the game strong, putting the Ooks on their heels for the opening 10 minutes, but were unable to beat goaltender Brendan Jensen, who made flashy pad stops on both Ryan Hartman and Cam Gotaas in tight in the opening six minutes.
That gave his team time to find their legs and they did off Thomas Foster's ice-breaking tally with 3:43 left in the opening frame as Brandon Ralph found him alone in the slot and he rippled the mesh behind Marc-Olivier Daigle.
All the wind just went right out of the Griffins' sails at that point – their stunned persona still unable to shake out of their funk early in the second period. And the Ooks made them pay, as Isaac Farrah picked up a loose puck in a wild scramble in front of Daigle two minutes into the middle frame and potted what would stand up as the game-winner.
Brett Njaa cut the lead in half with 8:09 left, chipping Sean MacTavish's pass into an empty net after a goalmouth scramble left Jensen down and out. MacEwan had a few more late crease-crashing scrambles – including when Brett Smythe's shot went past Jensen and sat on the line before a defender cleared it out of harm's way – but they couldn't get the equalizer.
Jensen made 32 saves for NAIT, while Daigle stopped 25 for MacEwan.
"The message for the guys is against good teams – and there's lots of them in this league – you have to be prepared to play 60 minutes because if you don't you dig yourself a hole and you just don't know if you can dig yourself out of it," said Ringrose. "That was the issue tonight.
"I really liked our push, I really like our game, especially in the second half tonight, but the bottom line is we, despite having many opportunities, couldn't find a way to pull even and the end result is what it is," he added. "Disappointing weekend for us on a results side of things. It shows you need to be prepared to play a full 60 minutes against the best teams in this league."
The loss is MacEwan's second straight to NAIT (also falling 2-1 on Friday night), which topples them from their pre-weekend perch atop the Alberta College Athletic Conference standings. Now at 9-4-1, the Griffins are three points back of Red Deer College (10-2-1-1) and one behind NAIT (10-4-0-0) heading into the semester break.
Despite the disappointing end to the first half, the Griffins are still very much in the hunt to grab one of the top two playoff seeds, which earn a bye past the first round of the playoffs. It's early to be thinking about that, but there are plenty of positives to build on when ACAC play resumes Jan. 11.
"Lots of things I'm really happy about," said Ringrose. "We're leading the league in goals for. We've scored more than anyone and we've given up less than anyone. That's an important statistic. Our special teams have been consistently good throughout the first half and are going to need to be in the second half as well. Those are all really positive things we can carry in.
"I'm happy with where we're at, I'm happy with where we're trending," he added. "But there's certainly lots of work to do. The second half always ramps up. The competitiveness is always higher. The expectation is always higher, so we need to rise to meet those."