Penguins notebook: Juuso Riikola impresses in preseason win
When defenseman Juuso Riikola signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in May, the path of least resistance was clear.
After training camp, he would be assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL for a little while to get acclimated to the smaller North American ice surface, then provide call-up depth as soon as the Penguins needed reinforcements on the blue line.
It’s become obvious Riikola has other plans.
The 24-year-old Finnish free agent continues to do nothing but impress, scoring a goal to help the Penguins to a 7-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in their preseason home opener Saturday afternoon.
Riikola’s goal was highlight-reel caliber.
He picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, and when the Blue Jackets defense backed off, looped around toward the right post and beat goalie Joonas Korpisalo with a backhand shot over his left shoulder.
“There was so much space to go. So I went,” Riikola said. “I don’t know what the ‘D’ was doing. He didn’t come to me.”
A few minutes later, Riikola slid to break up an Eric Robinson pass on a two-on-one break. Shortly after that, he stood up a Blue Jackets forward along the wall on the penalty kill.
It was a sample of the well-rounded game he has shown since the start of training camp.
“His hockey sense jumps out at you,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a real good puck mover. He can skate. He’s a mobile guy. What’s really surprised me is his willingness to embrace the physical aspect of the game. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in battles, and he’s done a real good job in that regard.”
Riikola said he didn’t want to get too excited about his start, noting opponents he has been facing in exhibition games haven’t dressed their full NHL lineups. He did say he felt comfortable, though.
“I think battles in the corners and the front of the net. That’s the biggest thing for me. I need to win those,” the 6-foot, 189-pound Riikola said. “I think everything else is pretty good.”
It’s still hard to imagine Riikola unseating one of the team’s established top six defensemen on opening night, but at the very least, his play has to have forced the Penguins to consider keeping an eighth defenseman rather than a 14th forward on the roster.
“We’ll let the training camp play out,” Sullivan said. “But certainly, he’s a guy that has raised eyebrows and he’s going to make decisions for the coaching staff very difficult.”
It sure looks like something about black and gold agrees with veteran center Matt Cullen. Playing his first preseason game since rejoining the Penguins in free agency, he had two goals and an assist while playing on an effective line with Zach Aston-Reese and Patric Hornqvist.
“I think he likes the way we play,” Sullivan said. “I think it plays to his strengths. He’s always been a very good skater. His fitness level is really good. He wants to play the speed game that we’re trying to play.”
Picking up points
Kris Letang scored one goal and set up another in a three-minute span of the second period. Sidney Crosby assisted on both goals. Adam Johnson, Zach Trotman and Garrett Wilson also scored for the Penguins. Matt Murray stopped 30 shots, allowing only an Oliver Bjorkstrand hat trick.
Former Penguins prospect Freddie Tiffels, who was placed on unconditional waivers for the purposes of contract termination Friday, signed with his hometown team in Germany, the Cologne Sharks.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.