Head coach Paul Maurice praises play of young stars in 5-4 OT win over Canadiens
First NHL game. First shot. First goal.
Winnipeg Jets defenceman Sami Niku’s National Hockey League debut was one for the ages, even more so considering it happened on the home ice of the storied Montreal Canadiens.
But the 21-year-old Finn was unflappable in the face of the pressure.
“I felt pretty good but I can play much, much better than I play today,” he said in a post-game scrum.
His composure was not lost on head coach Paul Maurice.
“Antifreeze in the veins, that’s the way he looked,” Maurice told reporters. “Pretty cool out there.”
Niku’s goal came in the third period, 24 seconds after Montreal had tied the game 3-3.
Kyle Connor dished a pass from the side of the Habs’ net toward teammate Andrew Copp in the slot. Copp missed on the shot and the puck sailed to Niku, who wristed it past Carey Price.
“I saw the puck coming and then I shot. I think it was lucky but it was nice,” Niku said about the shot, which changed direction off one of the Canadiens players in front of Price.
“Of course it was really nice to play my first game in [the Bell Centre]. Montreal is so big hockey town. It was nice, and to score a goal here,” he said, adding that his closest friends and family were watching back in Finland.
Niku, in his first year in North America, has spent most of the season with the Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate, scoring 15 goals and 37 assists for 52 points in 71 games for the Manitoba Moose.
Maurice said his play in the AHL earned him a test in the NHL.
“We wanted to see him against good competition and and … he had the confidence to get up into the rush,” the coach said.
Given a shift in overtime, Niku used his speed to get around a Habs player and create a good scoring chance.
“There’s lots to like there,” Maurice said. “I didn’t think there was a lot of risk in his game. I thought it was smart plays.
“In traffic he didn’t panic with the puck. He moved it pretty efficiently — all the things that a young defenceman has to learn. The skill set that he has is impressive.”
Asked about the pace of the big league, Niku’s answer was, predictably, nonchalant.
“I was fine with that. It wasn’t so bad.”
Maurice, who gave a rest to six Jets starters in the lead up to the playoffs, liked what he saw in his young guns, giving a nod to Jack Roslovic and Kyle Connor. Both chipped in with goals, Connor with the overtime winner.
“[That’s] great for a first-year player,” Maurice said about Connor. “He’s developed really strongly this year and he’s got such a quick release coming off the stick. It’s gone before, I think, the goaltender can set.”
The goal was Connor’s 30th of the year, giving him the lead in the NHL rookie goal-scoring race. He also leads all rookies in game-winning goals, with six.
Roslovic was playing for the first time since mid-March and didn’t miss a step, scoring on a one-timer in the second period.
“I’m really happy with his game. He’s going to be a good player for us,” Maurice said.
Faced with veteran superstars and a bundle of up-and-coming rookie and sophomore talent, the coach was asked if he’ll have trouble fitting some guys into the lineup.
The answer started with a smile that broke through his typically steely face.
“We got a pretty good team here.”