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HomeSportsHockeyNHL News: Stronger on defense, Panthers take on East-leading Bruins

NHL News: Stronger on defense, Panthers take on East-leading Bruins


The Florida Panthers, who will go for their third straight win when they play host to the Boston Bruins Wednesday night, are getting an unexpected contribution from defenseman Niko Mikkola.

In Monday’s 5-3 win over visiting Edmonton, Mikkola matched Oilers superstar Connor McDavid’s two goals, including Mikkola’s tying goal in the third period.

A 27-year-old native of Finland, Mikkola played with the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers before becoming a free agent last summer. July 1, the Panthers signed Mikkola to a three-year, $7.8 million contract.

“He fits us,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He competes on every shift. He closes gaps. He battles. He’s physical.”

Maurice said that “when the puck is going north and south,” Mikkola gets involved in the rush.

Indeed, in just 18 games this season, Mikkola – who made his NHL debut in January 2020 – has already matched his career high with three goals.

Mikkola was asked why he has suddenly become more of an offensive threat.

“Maybe it’s because my coaches and teammates here trust me to jump into the play anytime I see (an opening),” Mikkola said. “As a team, we always want one defenseman up in the play.

“We get scoring chances that way.”

Mikkola’s goals were especially welcome Monday, when the Panthers played their first game without center/team captain Aleksander Barkov, who went down Friday due to a knee-on-knee hit. He’s listed as day-to-day.

Even without Barkov, the Panthers have offensive stars such as Matthew Tkachuk, who has a team-high 14 assists, and Sam Reinhart, who leads the team in goals (13) and points (25).

But Florida is also loaded with quality defensemen now that Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour have returned from offseason shoulder surgeries. The defense also includes Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Gustav Forsling and Dmitry Kulikov.

Sergei Bobrovsky is Florida’s starting goalie (9-4-1, 2.66 goals-against average).

Meanwhile, the Bruins lead the Atlantic in their quest for their second straight division title.

Boston set an NHL record last season with 135 points but suffered an upset by the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs. The Bruins led that series 3-1 before Florida won the next two and then took Game 7 in overtime.

This season, while it’s not the type of playoff revenge the Bruins would prefer, Boston beat Florida 3-2 Oct. 30 on Pavel Zacha’s overtime goal.

In Boston’s most recent game, the Bruins gave up a 3-2 lead midway through the third period, falling 5-4 in overtime at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.

That game was atypical for Boston as the Bruins have allowed more than two goals just four times this season — all losses.

“We hold ourselves to a high standard,” Bruins center Charlie Coyle said. “Giving up points like that is unacceptable in our dressing room.”

The Bruins rotate goalies Jeremy Swayman (7-0-2, 2.09 GAA) and Linus Ullmark (6-1-1, 2.23 GAA).

David Pastrnak leads Boston in goals (12) and assists (17).

The Bruins are fairly healthy except for depth forward Morgan Geekie (upper body), winger Milan Lucic (lower body) and defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (upper body).

–Field Level Media

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