It doesn’t really matter that the final score last night was Buffalo 3, Pittsburgh 2. Given the lineups of both teams, the homestanding Sabres putting out a much stronger squad — that sounds about right.
More important takeaways are how some individuals storylines progressed.
Newcomer 24-year-old defenseman Juuso Riikola is emerging as one of the better stories in camp. Late in the game, he scored a goal.
Take a look at Juuso Riikola's first in a #Pens uniform. pic.twitter.com/CT5dN7Khuc— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 19, 2018
He did simple things like getting shots on net from the point and getting a little lucky with a deflection off a Buffalo player in front — you have throw it on net to get lucky, right? Riikola was given 19:41 in icetime, only NHL mainstays Olli Maatta and Chad Ruhwedel got more; that’s a telling sign the coaches are interested in seeing what Riikola has.
Juuso Riikola: “I feel so great right now. It was fun to play.” pic.twitter.com/f8Dk8ysPGl— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 19, 2018
He’s still a tough spot though, six defensemen on the team are making $2+ million dollars. Ruhwedel has proven to be a valuable, steady No. 6 or No. 7 type defenseman. So it still looks like there’s no place but Wilkes-Barre for Riikola. But if he keeps playing well and getting this long preseason look, there’s little doubt who the first injury call-up from the AHL would be for the defense.
Another positive was the play of Casey DeSmith. DeSmith was impressive in the first period stopping 13/14 shots, many on the power play since the Pens took three minor penalties in the last five minutes of the first period.
“I thought he gave us a strong game,” acting bench boss Jacques Martin said. “Especially in the first period on their power play.”
As of now, it’s probably safe to say DeSmith’s penciled his name in to start the season as NHL backup. The preseason isn’t over yet, so neither is the competition with Tristan Jarry, but as of now it makes too much sense to let Jarry (no waivers needed) go back to the AHL and get a starter’s workload of experience while DeSmith (again the better playing of the two) takes the NHL role.
The mixed bag
If there was some good, there was some “meh” too. Unfortunately for Daniel Sprong, he is a talking point today for the wrong reasons. After getting leveled by Rasmus Ristolainen, Sprong admitted after the game he got out of control and ended up taking a needless slashing penalty.
Sprong on the Ristolainen hit/response: "It was a clean hit, but I think he was a bit early. ... Next shift I tried to run two guys; frustration got there. You never want to get hit like that, but I should have controlled my emotions better. That was a bad penalty."— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) September 19, 2018
Who knows how much of a demerit the coaching staff will take this to be, emotions can run hot and hockey is an intense sport. However, for a player like Sprong it’s often been stressed he needs to showcase a good hockey IQ, make good decisions and show maturity to his game. Last night, unfortunately, the opposite of maturity was on display.
In better news, Sprong did get almost 18 minutes of ice-time, had three shots on goal, and got an assist on the highlight above in Riikola’s goal (that’s him making a routine pass back to the point). Overall though, his penalty might be the takeaway from the game and hopefully a learning point to move forward from. Sprong will be back in the lineup for Game 2 tonight against Detroit, which is a great sign and another chance for him to put some of his positive skills on display.
For being a top prospect, Jordy Bellerive had a tough outing too. He only got 11:37 of ice time and was on ice for two goals against, had zero shots on goal and only won 1/6 faceoffs. It’s one night and easy to brush aside, but that’s a poor outing from a player who was a darling of the preseason last year. Given his quicker than anticipated return from burns, it will be interesting to see if Bellerive is in fact at 100-percent and able to do what he did last year.
So that’s it from Buffalo, a fairly unimportant starting point for the preseason. The Penguins play tonight in Detroit for preseason Game No. 2, and then Saturday afternoon at home.