PITTSBURGH — Juuso Riikola did not play it safe in his NHL debut. He didn’t take his first shift until about five minutes into the game, and he found himself on the left side of Justin Schultz, not the right side of Jamie Oleksiak but announced his presence quickly. The Penguins used their offensive zone pressure to get Riikola a low-pressure shift in the offensive zone and Riikola promptly delivered a big hit.
The Penguins coaches used similar tactics throughout the game but that doesn’t diminish a solid effort.
Riikola benefitted from the sheltered minutes. On his first shift, he began an aggressive, physical campaign at the opponent’s blue line with a thundering hit. It was not a typical performance from a Penguins defenseman. Not in the least. But Riikola isn’t a typical story either.
“I thought Juuso had a good game, I think you can see his intellect, his ability to process the game,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought for his first NHL game, it was a really strong effort for him.”
Riikola doesn’t give ground at either blue line; he stands firm to keep the puck in the zone, plays aggressively on his own line to pressure puck carriers, relies on his speed to fill gaps as on-coming rushers look for lanes or dump-ins, loves to pinch into the offensive zone and pressure unsuspecting opponents on the mid-wall to disrupt breakouts, and he likes to hold the offensive blue line to disrupt the breakout. Riikola is fearless without being reckless.
He struck like a rattlesnake several times and surprised Vegas by jumping into the Golden Knights zone to disrupt their breakout on the left wall.
It was quickly apparent more analysis than the average report card would be needed for Riikola, Thursday. Without realizing it, my notes became a shift by shift report on the 24-year-old smiling Finnish defenseman. The first-period notes alone spanned half of a page.