The Pittsburgh Penguins coaches swallowed hard and went for it Saturday night against the Dallas Stars. Without injured Brian Dumoulin to anchor the left side of the Penguins top defensive pair, and absent a regular veteran defenseman after trading Erik Gudbranson Friday, the Penguins slotted second-year defender Juuso Riikola and rookie John Marino on the third pair in their 3-0 win.
Riikola has 40 NHL games experience, but the last three were as a forward. He has five points in his 37 games on the blue line but is known for his ability to step forward to make a hit and agitate opponents.
Marino has exactly 10 professional games on his resume` and scored his first point Saturday night.
“Yeah, that was pretty special, too,” he laughed.
The pair are plus skaters with offensive talent. Marino has a high hockey IQ, and Riikola plays with reckless abandon, but neither has ever played an NHL game without the benefit of playing beside a talented veteran. In fact, Penguins coaches shuffled their pairings late in the third period to put each with a veteran. Still, an examination of the Riikola-Marino duo shows the coaches had no reason to worry.
PHN+ chronicled the duo, shift-by-shift. The good, bad, and a few moments of ugly.
The coaches skipped over the pair in the first minutes of the game, and their early shifts were short and spaced several minutes apart, but it wasn’t long before the coaches took of the swimmies and let the pair splash around in the deep end of the pool. They saw some sheltered minutes with plenty of offensive zone starts but each had a Corsi above 68%.
Sullivan heaped praise on Riikola postgame, “Juuso is a great example of being a great teammate. We have discussions with him, and his response is always ‘whatever it takes, coach.’ That’s a testament to his own personal character.”