Cullen, Riikola Shine as Pens Top Columbus

Penguins down Blue Jackets 7-3 in preseason home opener

Josh Rowntree
September 22, 2018 - 9:08 pm
The Penguins take on Columbus in the 2018 preseason

Josh Rowntree - 93.7 The Fan

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Two players, separated by 17 years and 1,445 regular season games played, led the way for the Penguins in Saturday’s 7-3 preseason win over Columbus. 

Veteran Forward Matt Cullen, 42, scored two goals and assisted another, while rookie defenseman Juuso Riikola scored the game’s first goal and was a plus-2 in the game. 

Riikola, 24, is forcing Penguins coach Mike Sullivan into a potentially difficult decision, having showed a flair for offensive brilliance through a pair of preseason games. 

“He’s a real good player,” Sullivan said. “His hockey sense jumps out at you. He’s a real good puck mover, he can skate, he’s a mobile guy. What’s really surprised me is his willingness to embrace the physical aspect of the game. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in the battles and he’s done a really good job in that regard.”

“He’s been really good, all of camp,” Cullen added of Riikola. “Starting with the inter-squad scrimmages, I thought he was very noticeable and made a lot of good plays with the puck and obviously has a good head for the game.”

The Penguins, on paper, have defensive depth that could keep Riikola from making the pro team. Brian Dumoulin, Jack Johnson, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz all are locks. Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel appear to be the sixth and seventh. But Riikola likely has to be in that mix now, as well. 

“I think that he’s a guy that can help us,” Sullivan said. “With each game that he’s played here, with each practice, he gets a little bit better. 

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions. We’ll let the whole camp play out. When we signed him, we thought that he could play the game that we’re trying to play. Certainly, in the first few weeks here, he’s really shown an ability to do that.”

Riikola has played since 2010 in Finish leagues, scoring eight goals and adding 16 assists a year ago. The way the Penguins utilize offensive defensemen, like Letang, made joining the organization an easy decision. 

“I knew that the team here plays fast hockey and that’s what I like to do,” he said.

Cullen, meanwhile, centered Pittsburgh’s second line, between Zach Aston-Reese and Patric Hornqvist. 

“Those guys both played really well,” he said of his linemates. “They’re both so good at getting in on the puck and creating turnovers and it allows us to spend a lot of time in the offensive zone.”

After winning two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, Cullen spent last season in his home state of Minnesota, playing for the Wild. But the Penguins brought him back in the offseason and, even at his age, if early returns are any indication, he is right back to fitting in with Pittsburgh. 

“I think Cully was Cully,” Sullivan said. “He’s a good player, he’s just a smart player. He’s a competitive guy. I think he likes the way we play. I think it plays to his strengths.”

Hear more from Mike Sullivan below.