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Olli Maatta leaves top 6 as Penguins shake up defense |

Olli Maatta leaves top 6 as Penguins shake up defense

The Sabres’ C.J. Smith (49) carries the puck in front of Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola during the second period Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, in Buffalo N.Y.

Coach Mike Sullivan seems intent on putting a halt to his team’s defensive problems before they have a chance to fester.

After the Pittsburgh Penguins allowed a total of 11 goals in their first two games of the season, Sullivan presided over a serious practice with potentially significant lineup changes Monday morning at PPG Paints Arena.

On the personnel side, training camp sensation Juuso Riikola skated with the team’s top six defensemen, teaming up with Jamie Oleksiak on the third pair. That bumped Olli Maatta out of the top six and onto a fourth pair with Chad Ruhwedel.

The top pair of Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang remained unchanged. The training camp duo of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was reunited on the second pair.

“The reality is this business is competitive,” Sullivan said. “Our team is competitive. We have some guys that we know we can put in the lineup if we so choose that we think can play and help us win games.”

The Penguins have been thrilled with Riikola’s combination of mobility, skill and tenacity from the moment he set foot on North American ice at the start of training camp. Getting him into the lineup would be a perfectly logical way to jump-start the team’s defensive game.

Riikola said he has already learned that the NHL game, especially on the breakout, is faster than he was accustomed to back home in the Finnish league. But in general, he feels his transition has been smooth.

“I’ve been watching NHL games before,” Riikola said. “It’s not anything new.

“I feel good,” he added. “I haven’t played a game yet, so I’ll be ready.”

The way the team’s roster is constructed, getting Riikola in the lineup would require sitting down a defenseman with a legitimate track record of NHL success. That’s why the move, if Sullivan makes it, would be a shock to the team’s sensibilities.

There are good reasons to consider moving Riikola into Maatta’s spot. The Penguins have been outscored 3-0 when Maatta has been on the ice. He’s the only skater on the team with a zero in the goals-for column.

Still, he’s been a fixture in the team’s top four for the past five seasons and has two Stanley Cup rings in his pocket.

Scratching him would send a message. It’s the same message sending Oleksiak, Johnson or Schultz to the press box for a game would send.

At times in the past, when the Penguins weren’t as deep on defense, their top six were never in serious danger of losing their spot in the lineup. Now they are.

“There are circumstances, through the injury bug or whatever it may be, where you’re limited in that capacity, but there are other situations where you’re not,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, for the record, said there’s no guarantee the team would use Monday’s practice combinations in its next game Thursday night against the Vegas Golden Knights. That decision probably will be made Wednesday night, he said.

“We try different pairs almost daily to see what we might find, what chemistry might develop,” Sullivan said.

Away from the potential personnel shake-up, the Penguins had a detailed video session before Monday’s practice, then participated in a businesslike skate for more than an hour. Afterwards, many players took part in optional skills development for almost another hour.

Originally, the Penguins planned to conduct off-ice workouts rather than skating Tuesday morning. Those plans have been scrapped, and the team will hit the ice instead.

“We feel strongly that we’ve got to pay more attention to detail, and we’ve got to play with more of a competitive spirit if we’re going to have success,” Sullivan said.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at
[email protected] or
via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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