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Inside Scoop: Switching Positions

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

With a fifth forward joining the injury list ahead of Pittsburgh's game against Colorado on Wednesday as Jared McCann was ruled out with a lower-body injury, the Penguins decided to go for a new look with their lineup.

Instead of calling a player up or dressing 11 forwards and seven defensemen, they moved Juuso Riikola to left wing for the game. He ended up seeing 6:27 minutes of ice time on a line with Joseph Blandisi and Adam Johnson.

"How the rink looks when you're a forward, it's a lot different," Riikola said after the Penguins' 3-2 overtime win against the Avalanche at PPG Painta Arena. "You just go there and try to do your best."

Riikola's teammates praised him for his performance, giving him a lot of credit for stepping into that situation.

"It's obviously tough when you play years and years at your position and you've just got to jump into something else," Johnson said. "I think he did a good job. It was fun."

"His head had to have been spinning," Teddy Blueger said. "Figuring out the neutral zone, how he's in on the forecheck, trying to identify which guy he's going after - I thought he did really good."

And he looked good, too, according to Zach Aston-Reese.

"I wish he didn't cut his hair, because when he was flying down the wing in practice (on Tuesday) with his flow, it looked majestic," Aston-Reese joked. "He looked good in practice the day before, and he was scoring goals."

According to Brian Dumoulin, the defensemen were saying amongst themselves that Riikola was the right candidate to move up to forward.

"We were all talking and said that Juuso would probably be the best forward out of all of us, to be honest," Dumoulin said. "He's reliable, a really good skater, so it's pretty cool."

That being said, Kris Letang actually played forward from the time he started skating at the age of 3 until he was 15.

During a training camp for Collège Antoine-Girouard Gaulois of the Quebec Midget AAA Hockey League, his team was short on defensemen. Since Letang had already made the team, the coaching staff asked if he wanted to try playing defense.

"When I tried it, I loved it, so I said, 'Can I stay there?' And I ended up staying there," Letang said.

Letang has actually got the chance to play forward at the NHL level during the 2007-08 season, the same year that Michel Therrien - who was the head coach of the Penguins at the time - had Brooks Orpik move up as well.

"I did it for like two periods against Boston," Letang said. "I was coming back from an injury and we were playing well and when I came back, I think somebody got hurt up front so I played up for most of the game. It's strange, it's tough to just switch. It takes time to develop habits and adjust to the way that side of the game is played."

While Letang said he wouldn't mind doing it again, one of the team's other offensive-minded defensemen, Justin Schultz, said no thank you.

"I think it's a lot more difficult," Schultz said with a laugh. "Me and Tanger enjoy seeing the ice from behind and being able to jump into holes. These forwards we have are so good down low at protecting pucks, doing all that little stuff for us D-men so we don't have to do that much. I'll stick with defense."

The forwards had a similar sentiment when it came to them switching positions.

"If you put any of us forwards on defense, I don't think we would have fared as well as (Riikola) did playing forward yesterday," Brandon Tanev said.

Which of course, begs the question - if a forward did have to come back, who would be the best candidate?

"That's a good question," Sidney Crosby said. "Probably the guys who are some of the best skaters, I would think. It's hard to say. I'm going to go Tanev, maybe. He's a pretty good skater, can get back for pucks, give himself some time."

Letang also named Tanev, but mentioned Crosby as well - as did Schultz.

"(Crosby) is a center, so he's usually sometimes first back for breakouts and does a pretty good job of doing what we do a lot," Schultz said. "I would say him. I don't know how his backwards skating is, but I'm sure it's good enough."

There were definitely a few chirps coming from the defensemen about whether or not their forwards even know how to skate backwards, which was pretty funny. Crosby joked that they probably weren't too far off in that assessment. 

"Having to skate backwards, it wouldn't be pretty, I don't think," he said with a laugh. "Playing defense would be interesting. Going back for pucks would be a difficult chore, I think. Just getting used to those guys coming full speed at you and having to go retrieve dump-ins and things like that, take hits, it's not the most fun to do."

Overall, the forward who received the most votes from his teammates was Teddy Blueger.

"Just because he's so good defensively," Jared McCann said.

It's not something Blueger has ever done before, but he's had teammates do it in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

"We've actually had times in Wilkes with injuries and guys getting hurt throughout the game where forwards have had to go back and play 'D,' but it wasn't me," he said.

So Riikola at forward, Blueger at defense, and if the Penguins ever need an emergency goalie? Crosby's got that covered.

"I like my chances in the net," he said with a smile. "I'll go with that."

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