PITTSBURGH — Penguins defenseman Kris Letang laughed and gave a colorful “no” when asked if he would volunteer to play forward if the Penguins suffered more injuries. Yet Wednesday night, the Penguins turned to their emergency option to do just that, defenseman Juuso Riikola.
Penguins coaches made Riikola a healthy scratch for the first six games of the season. He had just a little bit of practice last week at a forward position, but the Penguins opted against another emergency recall after the team announced forward Jared McCann was day-to-day and inserted Riikola into the lineup as a fourth-line left wing.
It cost the team early in the first period Wednesday night, as Riikola was out of position after trying to make a neutral zone hit. The player Riikola missed, then didn’t cover was Matt Calvert who scored immediately.
Riikola, 25, had a rough go, but all is well which ends well as the Penguins beat the Colorado Avalanche in OT, 3-2 on Brandon Tanev’s shorthanded goal. Riikola was able to laugh about his performance which was equal to being tossed into the deep end of the pool moments after learning to doggie paddle.
PHN asked if he were given instructions prior to the game, Riikola smiled, “Not much. I asked about how the forwards need to defend.”
Riikola is an affable guy who doesn’t waste many words. There is still a language barrier for the Finnish defenseman in his second year of North American pro hockey. He often speaks in laughter and smile, but it was no joke that he was forced into the lineup as a left wing. He said he played a little bit of wing in Finland but only a couple of times.
The Penguins deployed Riikola for only six minutes on Wednesday night, and nearly two minutes of that ice time was on the Penguins’ second power-play unit. He also had three hits. PHN also asked what he thought of his performance, which drew the biggest laugh, “Ha, I don’t know.”