Penguins turn to balance, Juuso Riikola in absence of injured Kris Letang |
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Jonathan Bombulie
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola (50) celebrates his goal during the third period of an NHL preseason hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, in Buffalo N.Y.

Coach Mike Sullivan said Kris Letang is day to day with a lower-body injury that kept him out of Tuesday night’s 6-3 Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders.

Barring any setbacks, then, the Penguins won’t have to worry for too long about how to replace the many contributions of their all-star No. 1 defenseman.

In the meantime, Tuesday’s game gave some clues about how Sullivan plans to handle the situation for as long as it persists.

At even strength, Sullivan and the coaching staff tried to spread out the minutes as evenly as possible among the six healthy defensemen that remain in the lineup.

Ice times ranged from 16 minutes, 59 seconds for Jamie Oleksiak to 21:29 for Olli Maatta – a pretty narrow spread.

The Penguins obviously suffered a lopsided loss, but they outshot the Islanders 38-25 and held a 59-34 edge in even-strength shot attempts.

“I thought, for the most part, the guys back there did a pretty good job,” Sullivan said. “We tried to share the workload and spread it out over the six defensemen that were in the lineup tonight.”

The Penguins did, however, go 0 for 3 on the power play without Letang on the point.

“When you lose a guy like that, he’s not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “When you combine the fact that Justin Schultz is out too, he’s another guy we rely on in those situations.”

Finnish rookie Juuso Riikola took Letang’s place on the team’s star-studded top power-play unit with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.

“I thought he did a pretty good job,” Sullivan said. “That’s not an easy position to play. Especially as a young player, it’s his first experience in the league and he’s out there with some pretty good players. From that standpoint, there’s a lot of pressure on those guys out there because the expectations are so high with the group. But for the most part, I thought Juuso did a commendable job.”

Sullivan said he’d like to see Riikola shoot the puck more as long as he fills the role.

“We think that’s one of his strengths when he’s out there,” Sullivan said. “When we establish that shot from the top, I think a lot of other things open up for our power play. I think he was a little bit reluctant to shoot the puck. He’s a young guy and that’s a tall order, what we gave him tonight.”

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

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