SUNRISE — Monday night’s game between the Florida Panthers and the Edmonton Oilers was the offensive duel everyone thought it was going to be: Connor McDavid vs. Niko Mikkola.
Each player had two goals but it was Mikkola and the Panthers who came away with a 5-3 win.
The most goals Mikkola had scored in a season was three goals.
“That would have maybe been too much for me,” Mikkola joked when asked about the possibility of his first NHL hat trick. ”Maybe if there was a chance at the empty net, I would’ve taken it.”
Spoiler alert: He did not.
Sam Bennett ended up scoring the empty netter on this night.
But, Mikkola did tie his career-high with his second and third goals of the year.
His seven points in the first 18 games of the year are just six shy of his career best.
Mikkola had just five total goals before signing with the Panthers this offseason.
“The coaches and teammates trust you to jump up into the play every time you see it,” Mikkola said when asked about the reason for his hot start.
“We want to have one defenseman up in the play and get chances that way. I like it.”
Mikkola has fit in seamlessly since arriving in Sunrise.
The 6-foot-5 defenseman possesses some sneaky quickness and offensive IQ that gels perfectly with a Panthers system which favors defensemen jumping up in the rush.
“The style of hockey we play fits him perfectly,” coach Paul Maurice said.
”He is a big man who can cover ice and he can play very aggressively. So we all have a small number of rules on what we’re trying to do so our players can play as fast as possible.
“It’s a new kind of thing for him to see him up the ice so much, but he’s capable of doing it.”
McDavid was the one who kicked off the offensive duel.
Seconds after Gus Forsling nearly put the Panthers ahead early in the first period, McDavid cashed in on the other end 5:59 into the game.
Evander Kane quickly gave the Oilers a two-goal lead nine minutes in and things started to look bleak for the Panthers.
Until Kane took a roughing penalty just eight seconds later.
Carter Verhaeghe got the Panthers on the board with 9:24 to go in the first period, sending a quick shot from the slot past Calvin Pickard.
Pickard made the first five saves in his first NHL appearence since March 27, 2022, before finishing the game with 27 saves on 31 shots.
Mikkola tied the game up with 4:07 to go in the first, squeaking a wrist shot underneath Pickard’s arm off of a slick drop pass from Kevin Stenlund.
McDavid got his second of the game on a penalty shot five minutes into the second period.
Mikkola answered back with a goal on about as crazy a sequence as you are ever going to see 1:08 later.
Verhaeghe had his stick jarred out of his hands by Evander Kane and it was sent flying.
The stick happened to land in the way of Oilers defenseman Philip Broberg, who tripped over it as Verhaeghe kicked the puck off to Mikkola, who skated right past him.
Mikkola then scored on a deflected wide-angle pass intended for Evan Rodrigues, who was camping out in the slot.
”I haven’t seen the replay, but I just saw the broken play at the red line and I think the guy blew a tire or something,” Mikkola said.
”I tried to pass back door it to ‘Roddy’ but I’ll take it.”
Stenlund cashed in off of an Eetu Luostarinen rebound with 6:18 to go in the second period to give the Panthers the lead.
And it was a lead he helped the Panthers keep.
Florida found itself on the penalty kill twice as both teams took a slew of penalties in a chippy third period.
The Panthers killed both off despite missing their best penalty killer, captain Sasha Barkov, with a knee injury he sustained on Friday.
Stenlund made perhaps the biggest play, stuffing an Oilers wrap-around chance at the goal line to keep the Panthers ahead late in the third.
To Maurice, that was his biggest contribution even after he finished the game with a goal and two helpers.
”His best play was around the back post on the penalty kill. That’s where he has to be elite at his job,” Maurice said.
“We don’t expect him to score like Barkov, but when that puck comes around the back of the net and you’re a penalty killer, it’s more than your job, it takes some skill to do what he did and I thought he played great defensively.”
Stenlund picked up an assist on Bennett’s empty-netter with 42.6 seconds to go to help Florida move to 12-5-1 on the season.
Florida finished the day with the third-best record in the East despite playing just two periods with all of its star players healthy.
Barkov being the latest to miss time after top defensemen Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad missed the first 16 games with injury.
It was Luostarinen and Anton Lundell who stepped up and played top-line minutes against a star-studded Edmonton team.
PANTHERS ON DECK
BOSTON BRUINS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: TNT, HBO Max
- Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932; NHL App
- Last Season — Regular Season: Tied 2-2; Playoffs: Florida won 4-3 (first-round)
- This season — Bruins Lead 1-0: @Boston 3, Florida 2 OT (Oct.30), April 6; @Florida Wednesday, March 26
- All-time Regular Season Series: Boston leads 61-37-7, 6 ties
- All-time Postseason Series: Florida leads 2-0 (1996, 2023)
- Up Next for the Panthers: Friday vs. Winnipeg, 7 p.m.