As Florida Panthers continue torrid run, one player’s career year is flying under the radar

As the Florida Panthers continue their torrid run as of late, winning 14 of their past 16 games to put themselves atop the NHL standings entering Monday night’s game against the New York Rangers, recognition has been heaped on a slew of players for their individual accomplishments.

Sam Reinhart scoring 40-plus goals. Sergei Bobrovsky being dominant in the net and pushing his way back in Vezina Trophy conversation. Matthew Tkachuk racking up points since the calendar flipped to January.

But one player’s career year is falling under the radar because of that in Niko Mikkola.

The 27-year-old defenseman, who signed a three-year deal with the Panthers in the offseason, has quietly been one of Florida’s top players this season.

He’s not necessarily putting up points — even though his three goals, 10 assists and 13 points all tie his career high — but that’s not necessarily his game. He will join the rush and create offensive opportunities, but his main objective is to use his size (6-5 and 206 pounds) physicality to limit opponents’ offensive chances, whether it’s laying out an opponent with a bone-chilling hit or sacrificing his body to stop a shot from getting to the net.

“He is perfectly built to play the game we play,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said earlier this season. “He is unusual in the fact that he is a big man who plays a quickness game. He closes gaps, uses that long reach to kill plays, and gets into corners.”

So far, he has done just that.

Mikkola enters Monday leading the Panthers with 98 blocked shots and is second on the team with 143 hits (both eight shy of a single-season career high) while playing an average of 19:50 — more than three-and-a-half minutes per game more on average than his career average of 16:14 — through 61 games. He has played all season on Florida’s second defense pairing, first with Dmitry Kulikov and then with Brandon Montour, and is a critical part of the Panthers’ penalty kill that ranks as the sixth-best in the NHL.

Mikkola isn’t flashy. He doesn’t produce the highlight-reel plays.

But he does what the Panthers need him to do: He’s gritty, consistent and finds a way to get the job done.

And he is continuing to build his game as the Panthers build their way toward another potential deep playoff run.

“We’re trying to get the game at playoff level,” Mikkola said last week. “Just do what we do and try to improve every game.”

Milestone watch

Montour, who has 13 points over his past seven games, will play in his 500th career game Monday against the Rangers. It will be his 219th game with the Panthers after starting his NHL career with the Anaheim Ducks and then playing for the Buffalo Sabres before being traded to Florida.

Two other Panthers players are closing in on games played milestones as well: Sam Bennett is five away from his 600th NHL game, while Anton Lundell is five away from Game 200.

As for points, Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov is 10 points away from 700 for his NHL career. The only other player from the 2013-14 draft that has eclipsed the 700 point mark is Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick from that draft (Barkov was the No. 2 pick).