Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The old hockey adage of creating your own bounces through hard work couldn't have been truer at the Downtown Community Arena on Wednesday night.
Twice the MacEwan Griffins scored off good fortune plays, but it was their thorough and relentless intensity that drove the bus to a 4-1 victory over the visiting SAIT Trojans in Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference men's hockey action.
Exhibit A was Austin Shmoorkoff's game-winner early in the second period – a pure gift from the hockey gods. SAIT goaltender Payton Lee inexplicably left the puck behind his own net for Griffins forward Brett Njaa and then watched helplessly as he fed the former Red Deer Rebels rearguard for an empty-net tap-in – the first goal of Shmoorkoff's ACAC career.
"I think his guy said he was going to come get it and he didn't end up coming to get it, so I just picked it up," said Njaa of the SAIT miscommunication. "It worked out pretty good for me."
Less than five minutes later, Stefan Danielson wheeled deep into the zone down the right wall and fired a sharp-angle shot from the goal-line in the corner. Somehow it eluded Lee, who was caught cheating off the post.
"I thought we probably got a few fortunate bounces that ended up in the net tonight and I thought their goaltender made some great saves on some Grade A opportunities that didn't end up in the net for us, so I think it evened out in the end," said Griffins head coach Michael Ringrose.
"There were a couple of plays there that were different, that you don't see every day."
Lee tried his best to make up for the gaffes with several stellar saves throughout the contest – none better than an absolute highway robbery of Ryan Baskerville at 12:32 of the third period, stoning the Griffins' veteran with a pad save on a two-on-one one-timer.
The Kootenay Ice product also stopped Njaa on a breakaway late in the second period, making a total of 41 saves in the contest. He had further help from his posts as both Shmoorkoff and Baskerville found iron in the latter half of the game.
Although the Trojans opened the scoring at 10:10 of the first period when Colton McCarthy tipped Owen LaClare's point shot past Marc-Olivier Daigle, they were playing a step behind all night. SAIT simply ran into a buzzsaw that wouldn't be denied as the Griffins' will was first rate from the opening whistle.
"I thought we were good tonight," said Ringrose. "Right from the drop of the puck, we were good, we were skating, we were competing.
"For a group that had nine defencemen playing tonight – three of them playing forward – for those guys to be able to pick up that role as quickly as they did and as well as they did, credit to them. It was a huge part of our success. We were able to continue to play as a unit."
Plagued by late-season injuries to their forward core, the Griffins started blueliners Shmoorkoff, Matthew Waseylenko and Cameron Reagan up front.
"It's pretty impressive how well they fit in up there and how everybody gelled already with those new lines," said Njaa. "It felt good."
Reigning ACAC MVP Njaa was a man on a mission for pretty much ever shift and, constantly bearing down on Lee, he could have had four or five goals in the contest. As it was, he "settled" for two goals and an assist. Ironically, the Birch Hills, Sask. product scored in the first period off one of his least threatening chances of the tilt, sifting a seeing-eye shot from the left half-wall through a screen and inside the far post.
"That might be one of my uglier goals of the year," he said. "I don't think he saw much of it. We had a couple of guys driving the net and got in his face, so that helped me out a lot."
Njaa also scored MacEwan's fourth goal, sniping a third period one-timer from the same spot as his first tally off a gorgeous offensive zone seam pass from Nicolas Correale.
"That was a great play by Nic," said Njaa. "He didn't even look over, he knew I was there, so that was on a platter for me. If I missed that one, it wouldn't have been good."
Daigle made 22 saves for the Griffins and picked up his league-leading 15th victory of the season.
With the win, the Griffins improved to 18-5-1-0 and strengthened their hold on one of the top two spots in the ACAC standings that come with first-round playoff byes. SAIT (16-8-0-0) is now five points back, tied for third with Red Deer College (15-7-1-1).
MacEwan is now just three points back of NAIT (20-6-0-0) for first place with two games in hand.
"We talked about it early in the week, how it's an opportunity to get some separation," said Ringrose. "I'm proud of the effort tonight and I'm proud of the group in that room. We have a really quick turnaround. We have to get ready for a big game on Friday against Red Deer."
Wednesday's game was a makeup contest for a Jan. 26 date that was postponed after Griffins player Nakehko Lamothe tragically died following a Jan. 25 game at SAIT.
MacEwan's next two contests – a home-and-home against RDC – were also postponed. One of them will be made up on Friday afternoon when they visit the Kings at the Sylvan Lake Arena (1:30 p.m.).
"We've got some work to do now, so we need to move on from that one and hopefully get the next couple," said Njaa.