Sami Niku’s luck is about to turn
If there was a them to the Rocket’s road trip in Western Canada last week, it’s that the team deserved a better outcome than the three standings points they got in four games away from Laval.
There is no better example than the closing game of the trip against the Canucks. The Rocket lost 3-1 but they doubled up the local team on scoring chances at 5 on 5 (22 to 11) and it was even worse when it came to shot attempts (64 vs 31). It was a clear domination from Laval but sometimes the puck just doesn’t want to cross the line and that’s exactly what happened.
It there is a player that illustrates even better that lack of finish, it’s the #14 Sami Niku. It’s ironic because outside of the rink, the Finnish defenseman could not ask for better as he came back on this from more than a week of excused absence that allowed him to go join his partner as they were welcoming their new baby.
Since his return, the offensive defenseman has not recorded a point in four games. Despite that, his bad luck is even more obvious in another statistic; penalties. Sami Niku doubled his number of penalties taken this season during this trip by being called for three infractions. Each time it happened to Niku, the opponent scored.
Obviously, a player can help to control how many penalties he takes but once he is in the box, it’s all out of his control. It still doesn’t change anything to the fact that skating from the penalty box to the players’ bench after a goal is the worst for any player and the Rocket defenseman had a cruel reminder a few too many times.
Those who haven’t watched the games could think that this a sign of lack of discipline that would be punished by the head coach Jean-François Houle but it’s not exactly what happened during those games.
Actually, during this trip, Sami Niku has been the second most used player by the Rocket only behind his partner on the blueline, captain Xavier Ouellet. It means that even with those penalties who happened to be costly, the defenseman found a way to get back in the good graces with the quality of his play.
You see it first when you notice that he recorded at least a shot on goal every single game of the trip. That’s what you want to see from a defenseman who has a capacity to help the offense. That being said, it’s when you dive even deeper in the 5 on 5 numbers that you understand better how Sami Niku got his icetime.
During this four games stint, the #14 maintained a +16 scoring chances differential at 5 on 5. It was the second-best performance by a Rocket player behind his partner Xavier Ouellet (+16). The important part is that the players in third position for that statistic ended up at +7 (Kevin Roy and Nate Schnarr). That considerable gap shows why Niku had his coaches’ confidence despite his bad luck in the penalty box.
It has to be said that the pair he forms with Xavier Ouellet has been excellent this season when they play together. Their Corsi percentage of 64.91% almost gives a 2 for 1 edge to the Rocket when they are on the ice at the same time. To put that number in context, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard lead all the Rocket active players in that statistic with 56.47%. With numbers like this, it’s only a matter of time before goals arrive in bunches.
That pair truly shows nice chemistry and if Jean-François Houle and his team can manage to keep them together, they could be become a crucial part of the blue line during that crazy playoff push.