By JUDY OWEN
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Friday, April 20, 2018
WINNIPEG -- Captain Blake Wheeler isn't too worried that rookie defenceman Sami Niku has been summoned to fill a hole on the Winnipeg Jets' depleted blueline corps.
Niku was called up from the Manitoba Moose on Thursday, where he posted 54 points in 76 regular-season games and was named American Hockey League defenceman of the year.
The 21-year-old Finnish native could make his NHL playoff debut in Friday's Game 5 against the Minnesota Wild as a replacement for suspended blueliner Josh Morrissey.
The Jets lead the best-of-seven series 3-1 and could win their Western Conference quarter-final at home in front of 15,000 whiteclad fans.
Niku made a great impression on Jets players in his first regularseason NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens on April 3.
"Sami Niku has played one game in the NHL and he scored one goal," Wheeler said with a smile when asked what he expects if Niku plays.
The Jets were a loose bunch after practice on Thursday, a day after Morrissey was given a onegame suspension for cross-checking Wild centre Eric Staal in the neck during the Jets' 2-0 victory on Tuesday.
Morrissey practised with the team, but wasn't available for comment. Head coach Paul Maurice said he hadn't talked to the second-year defenceman, but he appeared to be taking his suspension in stride.
"He showed up smiling today, that's his normal routine," Maurice said.
The absence of the steady Morrissey, who's on the top pairing with Jacob Trouba, is being viewed as another test for a team that has overcome some adversity because of missing players.
"We're used to it," Maurice said.
"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 ... all of the other guys who stayed in our lineup all year have kind of taken up that slack, but there's no doubt you miss a guy like Josh."
The Jets already lost blueliner Tyler Myers to a lower-body injury in Game 3. He didn't skate on Thursday and neither did injured defencemen Toby Enstrom and Dmitri Kulikov.
Maurice said he wasn't ruling anybody out when asked specifically about Myers's status for Friday's game.
Veteran forward Bryan Little said the team is just focusing on ending the series no matter who's playing.
"We don't want to give [the Wild] any life or any hope," Little said. "We want to do it [Friday] and we want to come out hard against them."
Niku, meanwhile, is eager to contribute if he's tapped to play.