Rangers newcomer Niko Mikkola adapting to sudden defense pairing with Adam Fox
GREENBURGH, N.Y. — When the Rangers hosted the Washington Capitals Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, defenseman Ryan Lindgren missed his eighth consecutive game because of an upper-body injury. That meant, for the eighth game in a row, Lindgren’s defense partner, Adam Fox, was spending most of his time on the ice with newcomer Niko Mikkola.
“I think it's going OK,’’ Mikkola said at Tuesday’s morning skate of his forced partnership with Fox and his elevation to the top defense pair. “I don't think we are playing at the level we want to, as a team, [but] I just try to bring my normal game, a pretty simple game, with Fox, too. I don't want to try anything more or less than what I usually do.’’
When the Rangers acquired Mikkola, 26, as part of the Feb. 9 trade with St. Louis that brought forward Vladimir Tarasenko to Broadway, it was with the idea that the 6-4, 209-pound Finn would be an upgrade over Ben Harpur on the third defense pair, partnered with second-year man Braden Schneider. He would be available to kill penalties and it would strengthen the defense overall.
“When we got him, we knew we had gotten a good hockey player,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said of Mikkola. “I mean, he's a different type of player than ‘Lindy,’ but he's played excellent for us. We're really happy with the way he's playing. And sometimes . . . injuries put guys in different roles, and he's gone up there [on the top pair, with Fox] and succeeded, and played really well.’’
The analytics suggest something different, however. Since Lindgren was injured Feb. 25 in Washington, the last time the Rangers played the Capitals, the pair of Mikkola and Fox entered Tuesday having played 98 minutes, 14 seconds together at five-on-five, according to the analytics site Natural Stat Trick. In that time, the pair has been on ice for two goals for and nine against and the Rangers have been outshot 56-37.
In comparison, the pair of Mikkola and Schneider, who have played 109:59 together at five-on-five, had been on ice for six goals for and four against, and 46 shots for and 55 against.
Overall, Mikkola had played 15 games for the Rangers before Tuesday, recording two assists, a minus-2 plus/minus, and 14 minutes in penalties.
Mikkola, a big, physical, crease-clearing, stay-at-home defenseman, said he tries not to change much about his game just because he’s partnering with Fox, the 2021 Norris Trophy winner. And he said he doesn’t occasionally find himself watching Fox when he’s on the ice with him.
“No, not really,’’ he said with a laugh. “I still need to play myself, too. But of course, in a practice, or if you're on the bench and you see him making those plays, it's pretty unreal to see how he sees the ice and how he sees the play.’’
Mikkola insists he tries to “bring my own game’’ with Fox, but he’s well aware he’s playing with one of the best defensemen in the league.
“So you just try to give him the puck and let him do his thing,’’ he said.
Off the ice, Mikkola has adjusted to life in New York since the trade, he said. He found an apartment in the city, and naturally, he’s spent some time with his fellow Finn, Kaapo Kakko.
“I'm kind of, like, settled in right now,’’ he said. “And it's been good. I like it. We have a good group. We have a chance to make a run this year, and I've been loving it.’’