Program's new career assists leader Njaa leads Griffins on quest for another championship

Brett Njaa, left, celebrates with Austin Shmoorkoff and other teammates after setting him up for a goal against SAIT on Feb. 20. Njaa's assist on the play would break MacEwan's program record for most in a career (Matthew Jacula photo).
Brett Njaa, left, celebrates with Austin Shmoorkoff and other teammates after setting him up for a goal against SAIT on Feb. 20. Njaa's assist on the play would break MacEwan's program record for most in a career (Matthew Jacula photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – The assist might have been the easiest one of his career.

Brett Njaa pounced on a puck that SAIT goaltender Payton Lee inexplicably left for him behind the net and passed it out front to Austin Shmoorkoff, who tapped it into an open net.

That Feb. 20 helper on the game's winning goal gave Njaa 76 for his career, passing former Griffin Ryan Benn for the most in franchise history.

"It was pretty cool. They got the puck after that assist, so that was pretty cool," said Njaa, who added two more before the season was finished to sit at 78 in a four-year career that started in 2015. "Me and Benny are pretty good buddies, so it was good – a few bragging rights. He holds the big stick (still the Griffins' career goals and points leader), so at least I can have a little bit over him."

Njaa closed the 2018-19 regular season on a tear for MacEwan with five goals and eight points in the Griffins' final five contests and finished as the team's leading scorer (with 35 points) for a fourth-consecutive season.

The good thing for the Griffins? He traditionally saves his best play for the playoffs.

"Njaazy, if you look at his history, is a guy who always plays his best hockey when it matters most," said Griffins head coach Michael Ringrose. "Both this season and last, he's had an average start to the season by his standards, amped things up as the season went on and ended up playing his best hockey in the playoffs when we need him the most. You're seeing the same thing this year.

"Obviously, the assists record is something he can be proud of, but it's not his focus and I can tell that by the way he's preparing and the way he's practicing. But it's nice to see him firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs here."

The Griffins will open their quest for a third-straight Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference championship on Thursday when they welcome the Red Deer College Kings for Game 1 of the best-of-three semifinal (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).

Both teams finished with the same record in the regular season (19-7-1-1), but MacEwan earned the second seed and first round playoff bye on the regulation wins tiebreaker (19-17). No matter for the Kings, who trounced Concordia in two straight in the first round, outscoring them 11-1, to set up a date with MacEwan this weekend. RDC will host Game 2 on Friday (7 p.m., Canada Games Arena), while Game 3, should it be required, will take place on Saturday (6 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).

Memories are still fresh from the last time the teams met. RDC emerged with a stunning 6-2 win over the Griffins at the DCA on Feb. 27 after scoring three third period powerplay goals in the span of 1:24 to break a 2-2 tie before adding an empty netter. That came just five days after the Kings shut out the Griffins 3-0 in Sylvan Lake.

Overall, that evened the season series as MacEwan handed RDC back-to-back 6-2 losses in October.

"We owe them a couple now, so that will be good – hopefully it gives us some motivation," said Njaa. "For the most part in that game we didn't play too bad, but we let the reffing and the penalties get to us a little bit.

"We definitely need to have better discipline come playoff time," he added. "Discipline in the playoffs is huge. One powerplay can sway the whole series."

Brett Njaa dekes out Red Deer College goaltender Arik Weersink for a goal during a Feb. 27 meeting between the teams. They'll meet in a best-of-three ACAC semifinal series starting Thursday (Matthew Jacula photo).

The good news for the Griffins is that last loss to the Kings isn't the latest taste in their mouths. They finished with two solid performances against first-place NAIT to close out the regular season, including a dominant 5-2 win on the road to clinch second place.

"After the series against Red Deer, we knew we weren't playing our best hockey," said Ringrose. "We really just had one more weekend heading into the playoffs to right the ship in some areas and get back to playing the way we need to play to be successful. I thought we were able to do that.

"That's great, but that was the regular season. The challenge is to carry that forward through into the playoffs and continue to play the game the way the game needs to be played if we're going to have success."

At least they know the formula for winning a championship, returning 15 players from the team that celebrated with the trophy at NAIT Arena a year ago.

Njaa – the 2017-18 ACAC player of the year – notes two big reasons why they were able to climb the mountain and what they'll need to tap into to do it again.

"The main things are our character and our compete level," he said. "The last two years, we've out-competed every team we've played in the playoffs. And our character: it didn't matter if we were up two goals, down two goals, it didn't matter how much time was left, we always found we were still in the game.

"If we can follow that model, I think we're going to be OK."

First, though, is a very stern test against a Kings team that's playing its best hockey of the season. RDC comes into the series on an eight-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 48-9 over that span.

"Obviously, we're playing against a team that is also playing its best hockey of the year," said Ringrose. "It's always fun to play Red Deer because there's so much skill and depth on their roster, and we feel like we have those same traits in our locker-room.

"I always see it as an exciting series and certainly something we circle on the calendar."

ICE CHIPS … The Griffins swept the Kings 2-0 in the ACAC semifinal last season before besting NAIT 2-1 in the final series … In the four games between the teams this season, Njaa led the Griffins with four goals and five points … Chase Thudium led the Kings in scoring during the regular season with 37 points in 28 regular season games … Tanner Butler leads the Kings in post-season scoring with two goals and two assists in two playoff games … The winner of the MacEwan-RDC series will face the winner of the other semifinal (NAIT vs. SAIT) in the best-of-three ACAC final.