Thanks to the excellent preseason Juuso Riikola had, the hopes and expectations surrounding the Penguins’ newest Finnish defenseman were sky-high — and rightly so.
It was universal between the coaching staff and fanbase that he’d slide into the other Finnish defenseman’s vacant spot and continue awing everyone who watched. During Pittsburgh’s matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights Thursday evening, Riikola, in his first ever NHL regular season start, cemented how good of a player he truly is in tremendous fashion.
First at foremost, his skating was once again absurd. Riikola looks as if he’s gliding effortlessly on a crystal clear sheet of ice without any interference hindering him. The big European ice Riikola is used to has to be playing a big role in this, because the speed, ability to turn on a dime, and edge work he has is masterful. Riikola will dance around ever opposing player if it means he can create a scoring chance, sling a tape-to-tape pass, or poke-check a puck away from a dangerous scoring area.
Secondly, Riikola is a tenacious defender, which is something the Penguins have truly missed in the back end. He doesn’t give up a single inch inside his own zone, and as soon as a guy steps over the blue line, Riikola swallows them up and is right on top of them, supplying constant, unrelenting pressure. As mentioned above, he loves the poke-check, and he knows the time and place to use it perfectly.
However, Riikola refuses to solely play the puck, and will square up to an opposing player’s body before he even worries about the paddle at the end of their stick. Then, when the time strikes, he’ll dart his stick out like the tongue of a snake and eliminate their possession. He’s not afraid to throw his body around either, as shown by the huge hit he placed on a Golden Knight at the beginning of the game. Riikola’s conditioning is on full display each shift, appearing as if he never gets winded. It’s remarkable.
The Finn collected 17:13 minutes of ice time versus Vegas, appearing on the excellent third line with Jamie Oleksiak. That duo was easily the best defensive pairing out there, and the combination of Dominik Simon-Derick Brassard-Bryan Rust (and eventually Patric Hornqvist) played very well. It seemed as if every time that grouping was deployed, good things happened to the Penguins, despite the lop-sided Corsi numbers favoring the Golden Knights.
Expect Riikola to stay in the lineup barring any major setbacks. He played entirely too well for Mike Sullivan to bench him. Things are going to get very interesting for Olli Maatta, and possibly Jack Johnson (who has plummeted the advanced metrics of both guys he’s been paired with so far), if Riikola continues to produce as the season carries on.