Takeaways as Niko Mikkola’s breakout game leads Florida Panthers to win over Oilers

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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The opportunity was there for Niko Mikkola. The Florida Panthers’ physical, lengthy defenseman isn’t known for his goal-scoring prowess, but there he was Monday with two goals before the game against the Edmonton Oilers reached the halfway mark.

Was he thinking about possibly getting a hat trick?

“That would be maybe too much for me,” Mikkola said with a laugh. “Maybe if there’s a chance to shoot at the empty net, I would take it.”

Instead, Mikkola settled for the first multigoal game of his career as the Panthers beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-3 on Monday to begin a three-game homestand at Amerant Bank Arena.

Florida improves to 12-5-1 on the season. The Oilers fall to 5-11-1.

Mikkola now has a career-high-tying three goals in 18 games this season, his first with the Panthers after signing a three-year deal with the club this offseason, and eight in 188 career NHL games.

That’s in addition to his team-leading 40 blocked shots and 24 hits that rank third on the team.

What has led to Mikkola’s offensive outburst?

“It’s not the system,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s the style of hockey that we play. It fits him perfectly. He’s a big man that can cover ice and he can play very aggressively. We have a small number of rules in what we’re trying to do so that players can play as fast as possible, but it’s that and it’s also that he gets on the ice with some pretty good players around him that will open ice up. It’s a new kind of thing for him to see him up the ice that much, but he’s capable of doing it. We want all our defensemen to do that, but he fits here.”

Added Mikkola: “The coaches and teammates trust [me] to jump on the play every time. We want that, one [defenseman] always up in the play and getting chances. It’s been like that.”

Both of Mikkola’s goals on Monday tied the score.

In the first period, he took a drop pass from Kevin Stenlund and fired a wrist shot from the left circle past Edmonton goaltender Calvin Pickard to tie the score at 2-2 with 4:07 left in the opening period.

In the second, with the game at 4-on-4 following penalties to Edmonton’s Zach Hyman and Florida’s Sam Bennett, Mikkola rushed into the offensive zone from the left side, and his pass attempt toward Evan Rodrigues went in the net to even the game at 3-3.

Stenlund scored the game-winner with 6:18 left in the second period and had three points. Carter Verhaeghe opened scoring for Florida with a first-period power-play goal. Sam Bennett added an empty-net goal with 42.6 seconds left.

Connor McDavid scored twice for Edmonton — once on a penalty shot — and Evander Kane scored the Oilers’ other goal.

Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 of 28 shotsto improve to 9-4-1 on the season, including 6-1-0 in November.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

Line shakeups without Barkov

With center and team captain Aleksander Barkov out Monday due to a left knee injury, Maurice mixed and matched with his lines.

Anton Lundell centered the top line with Eetu Luostarinen and Sam Reinhart on the wings. That line was productive during the Panthers’ Stanley Cup Final run, and the chemistry among the three is apparent on the ice, making it a natural fit with Lundell getting extended minutes.

Verhaeghe joined center Bennett and right wing Matthew Tkachuk on the second line. Stenlund moved up to the third line and centered Rodrigues and Nick Cousins. Jonah Gadjovich, Steven Lorentz and Ryan Lomberg made up Florida’s fourth line.

A chippy game

The Panthers and Oilers combined for 46 penalty ice minutes on 13 minor penalties, two fighting penalties and one misconduct.

Nearly half of that came in the span of 41 seconds in the third period when Gustav Forsling was called for interference; Evan Bouchard was penalized for holding Lomberg, who was subsequently sent to the box for embellishment; and the trio of Bennett, Hyman and Kane went to the box — Bennett and Hyman each for roughing, Kane with a 10-minute misconduct.

Florida’s Gadjovich and Edmonton’s Vincent Desharnais fought early in the second period.

That doesn’t factor in the penalty shot for McDavid.

The homestand continues

The Panthers are now 7-1-0 this season at Amerant Bank Arena.

The announced attendance for the game Monday was 19,628, the second consecutive home sellout and third in eight home games.

They continue their three-game homestand Wednesday against the Boston Bruins and wrap up the set Friday against the Winnipeg Jets.