Thoughts, musings and observations from the locker room prior to the Penguins’ game against the Vegas Golden Knights.
* It looks like Juuso Riikola will be making his NHL debut tonight as he confirmed after morning skate that he would be in the lineup.
“I don’t want to think about it too much,” said Riikola, who added that the nerves haven’t set in yet. “Everybody says just play like you play. So I’ll be ready and play like I play always.”
That play was the reason the Pens aggressively pursued the 24-year-old, who was a sought-after free agent, and signed him to a one-year entry-level deal. They strongly believed he’d be a terrific fit in their system, and he’s proven that since Day 1 of training camp.
He has been everything management hoped he would be and more – a mobile, puck-moving blueliner with skill and a big shot who’s surprised everyone with his physicality and willingness to throw hits and get in the dirty areas.
What’s also stood out is his confidence, which head coach Mike Sullivan loves seeing in young players and has helped Riikola make the adjustment to North American hockey quickly. I remember when he did a media scrum before the final preseason game, and someone asked him if he foresaw being on the roster that close to the season. “Why not?” he responded.
Riikola belongs here and he knows it. He doesn’t have any nerves yet, but to be honest, he said he hasn’t really felt nerves at all since he’s been here. But if they do happen to set in, his teammates are confident he’ll be just fine.
“He’s played in some big games in his career, so I don’t think we have to overcomplicate things,” said Jamie Oleksiak, who’s been skating on a pair with Riikola in practice the last few days. “He knows what he has to do. It’s the same game. He’s a good player, so I think communication between us two and making sure that we’re getting our calls right is key, and if he’s got any confusion on any plays, help him out. But we do a pretty good job in practice of making sure we know what we’re doing off draws and in different situations. So that’ll be a good test for us tonight.”
* Riikola will likely slot in for fellow Finn Olli Maatta. Though he’s also just 24, Maatta is an established young pro as he is a two-time Stanley Cup champion in his sixth NHL season. But as Sullivan always says, this business is competitive, their team is competitive and they’re going to dress the lineup they think gives them the best chance to win. Right now, Maatta isn’t part of that equation after struggling in his first two games.
“I’ve got to be better,” Maatta said. “Definitely not good enough.”
Maatta is so mature and so professional, and he understands the situation. As he put it, “what happens, happens. We’ve got good D-men here. Like we talked about all last season and this preseason, we’ve got eight D-men that can play in this league, so it’s always a competition.”
He can only control what he can control, and he’s been working incredibly hard to get better. Maatta is usually always one of the last players off the ice after practices and morning skates, but he’s taken that to another level these past few days. For example, on Wednesday he put in an extra hour of work after an hour-long practice, spending a big chunk of time with just himself and a skills coach working on his skating and footwork.
* It was good to see Matt Murray taking part in the Pens’ optional morning skate after the team announced on Tuesday that he had been diagnosed with a concussion. He took the ice about 40 minutes beforehand to work with goalie coach Mike Buckley and skating and skills development coach Ty Hennes, then stayed on with his teammates, taking shots the entire time.
Murray will not dress tonight – Casey DeSmith will start while Tristan Jarry, recalled in the afternoon, will backup – but it’s good to see Murray progressing.
“As always, it’s a day-to-day type of thing,” Murray said. “I feel good, but I have to talk to the doctor today.”
* With Murray out, the goalie matchup will be DeSmith versus Malcolm Subban in net, as Marc-Andre Fleury got the start on Wednesday in Washington. Needless to say, this game will definitely have a muchdifferent feel compared to the last time the Pens hosted the Golden Knights.
It’s still going to be an exciting matchup, especially after Vegas’ fairytale run to the Stanley Cup Final. And while the Pens know they need to respect their opponent, they are more concerned about themselves and their game, especially considering how last week went.
* After the Pens’ season opener, a 7-6 win over Washington last Thursday, the players acknowledged that there a lot of ups and downs in the game and that they obviously needed to tighten up their defensive play. But they added that with it being the first game, there were a lot of nerves and hesitation and guys holding their sticks too tight, so they felt confident they would be better.