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This article was published 19/4/2018 (952 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There is plenty of mystery and intrigue surrounding the Winnipeg Jets blue line as they sit on the cusp of putting the Minnesota Wild out to pasture.
Rookie defenceman Sami Niku says he's ready to make his NHL playoff debut if needed.
"I think I'm not guy who is nervous. It's normal game for me," the smooth-skating 21-year-old Finn said following Thursday's team practice.
"I'm pretty confident. I know I can play here."
A one-game suspension to top-pairing defenceman Josh Morrissey will keep him out of the lineup for Friday's Game 5 at Bell MTS Place, in which the Jets have a chance to win their first playoff series in franchise history. They've taken three of the first four games against the Wild, who will be desperately fighting to keep their season alive.
Niku's number is likely to be called if one of Tyler Myers and Toby Enstrom can't go. The two veteran defencemen are sidelined with lower-body injuries and didn't skate Thursday. Enstrom has yet to play in the series, while Myers was knocked out in Game 3 and missed Game 4. Dmitry Kulikov is also injured but isn't believed to be close to a return.
Jets coach Paul Maurice wasn't offering any hints Thursday as to what his blue line might look like when the puck is dropped just after 6:30 p.m.
"I wouldn’t rule anybody out," said Maurice.
Niku has but one NHL game under his belt, a late-season appearance in Montreal in which he scored his first goal on his first shot. He's had a remarkable pro debut with the Manitoba Moose and was just named the AHL's top defenceman. He's only the second rookie in the 60-year history of the award to win it.
"He has one game, one goal, so you have to think he’s going to score if he plays," good friend and fellow countryman Patrik Laine said Thursday with a smile. "It would be huge for him but it’s a whole different game he played in Montreal. I think he’s always liking challenges and he’s played in big games before. It will be exciting for him and for me as well."
If Niku plays, he'd be joining a group that includes fellow rookie Tucker Poolman (who made his playoff debut in Game 4), plus depth defencemen in journeyman Joe Morrow and Ben Chiarot. Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba would be the only members of Winnipeg's regular top six to dress.
"I think you hear every year teams talking about needing eight or nine defenceman when you make the playoffs. I think that’s the thing here. We have great depth," Chiarot said Thursday. "We just have good players. In the room, when everyone kind of conforms to the same system. Everyone knows what they’re doing out there. It’s not like the new guy isn’t on the same page. Match that with good depth and it makes us pretty successful."
Maurice said not having a player like Morrissey available for such a big game is not ideal, but it isn't keeping him awake at night.
"For sure, it’s a hole. We’ve, unfortunately over the past four years, gotten to be pretty good at having defencemen out. We’re gonna put six guys that played in the NHL on the ice tomorrow and we expect them to be good," he said.
And if one of those six happens to be Niku?
"Doesn’t seem to be overly fazed by the stage. It’s a good thing. Run the right risk, right. If you skate real well and think you can get into a hole then skate as fast as you can and get into that hole. Do the things that you normally do. I think in all of the games you see, there’s a tremendous amount of excitement and tension in that first 10 minutes and then everybody settles in — the crowd, the teams, the game itself settles — and then it will be a game of hockey," said Maurice.
"You’d say the same thing we start with each player: 'What are you good at?' And make sure you have the confidence to bring that. We wouldn’t [be] looking for him to go out and decide to be a grinder now. He’s good at getting the puck quick and then moving it quick and then he can find those holes. That’s going to be true his whole career. Having the confidence to do it in a game that has more weight to it, that’s all part of that experience that so many of these young players have gone through, and they’ve all been able to do it."
The Jets had more than 280 man games lost to injuries throughout the season, including extended ones to key players such as Mark Scheifele, Adam Lowry and Jacob Trouba, and yet they still put together their best-ever regular season and finished second overall in NHL standings.
"That’s a big number, but there was something really good. Staying healthy all season and then suffering them late, we haven’t had to deal with it. We’re so used to this," Maurice said.
"I’m not trying to send my message to my players through the media. We’re used to it. It doesn’t cause a ripple in there when a guy goes down or a guy goes out. We’ve had players come in and be good. And almost to the point…Jack Roslovic’s been a real good player this series. It creates a little competition to get back in the lineup."
Indeed, Roslovic took the place for forward Mathieu Perreault following his upper-body injury in Game 1. Perreault has also not resumed skating.
Niku said Thursday getting one game under his belt will certainly help should he be required.
"So now I know what kind of game it is in the NHL. And it's much easier now. I always have good confidence. I have to have that with my game style. I have always had that," he said.
"Of course, it's really nice to know that I can play in the Stanley Cup playoffs before I play AHL playoffs. Of course it's always different in playoffs, and, like, more hits and more physical game, but it's still the same game."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.