Penguins’ Juuso Riikola punctuates big night in St. Louis with first NHL goal
ST. LOUIS – When Jamie Oleksiak was cleared to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup before Saturday night’s game with the St. Louis Blues, there was a chance Juuso Riikola would find himself a healthy scratch once the puck dropped.
After all, Riikola was the odd-man out before Oleksiak suffered a concussion in a fight with Washington’s Tom Wilson on Dec. 19.
Coach Mike Sullivan, however, decided not to change the six-man group that produced four straight wins in Oleksiak’s absence. Riikola rewarded his coach with a big night in a 6-1 Penguins win over the Blues.
Riikola scored his first NHL goal on a second-period power play, blocked six shots and dropped St. Louis defenseman Robert Thomas with a massive open-ice hit to help the Penguins to their fifth straight win.
“It was great for him,” Sullivan said. “He had a smile from ear to ear when he scored. He got a great ovation (in the locker room) after the game. We recognized his first NHL goal, and that’s something he’ll never forget. No one ever forgets their first NHL goal. It’s a big deal, and we’re thrilled for him.”
Riikola was one of the top scoring defensemen in the Swedish league over the past two seasons before signing with the Penguins in May.
He had plenty of scoring chances in his first 18 NHL games, but between a few shots off the post and a few near misses, he had yet to score.
That changed when Tanner Pearson won a puck battle in the right-wing corner and threaded a pass through the offensive zone to Riikola above the left hash marks. He wound up and fired a shot that trickled through goalie Jake Allen.
Riikola jumped into the glass next to the Penguins bench in celebration.
“It was awesome,” teammate Kris Letang said. “He’s a guy that’s had tons of chances, a lot of posts he hit. I think everybody’s happy for him.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.