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Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola earns rave reviews for NHL debut

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, 5:36 a.m.
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.
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.

He didn’t steal the show like he did at times during an eye-opening preseason, but Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola earned rave reviews for his performance in his NHL debut Thursday night against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Riikola played about 18 minutes, showing off a sound defensive game as the Penguins bounced back from a dismal loss to Montreal last Saturday with a 4-2 victory over the Golden Knights.

Riikola burst onto the radar with four points in the preseason, tying for the team scoring lead. His physicality, however, was more noticeable Thursday night. He delivered four hits, including a rattling hip check to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare along the boards on one of his first shifts, and blocked two shots.

“He was awesome,” goalie Casey DeSmith said. “Pretty amazing poise for somebody who is getting his first taste in the NHL. Obviously he was comfortable out there. At least he looked it. Silky smooth hands. I thought he made a lot of good individual efforts to get us out of the zone at times, which was much needed.”

The Penguins were in the red in shot attempts all night long, but Riikola’s pair with Jamie Oleksiak was closer to break-even than most. They didn’t play easy minutes, either. Coach Mike Sullivan used the pair for 12 defensive-zone faceoffs and only one offensive-zone faceoff in the game.

“I thought Jusso had a good game,” Sullivan said. “You can see his intellect, his ability to process the game, his passing ability, his mobility to get back to pucks. I thought for his first NHL game, it was a really strong effort for him.”

Riikola was in the lineup at the expense of Olli Maatta, who was a healthy scratch for the first time since his rookie year.

The defensive group, as a whole, didn’t play so well that Maatta is in danger of being Wally Pipped. A strong, 35-save performance by DeSmith and three goals from Phil Kessel helped paper over a lot of deficiencies that are still present in the Penguins’ game.

But Riikola showed enough to make a strong case for regular playing time moving forward.

“It was a big game for me, but I don’t know. It’s kind of like I focus on what I need to do on the ice,” Riikola said, explaining why he wasn’t terribly nervous for his debut. “I don’t think too much like who is watching or those things.”

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Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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