FORT LAUDERDALE – The big man is making big plays in big games.

In Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win over the New York Rangers in Game 4 Eastern Conference Final, it was defenseman Niko Mikkola that forced the turnover that led to Aleksander Barkov’s breakaway, which in turn then led to the key power play in which Sam Reinhart buried the game-winning goal.

With the win, the Panthers evened the hard-fought series at 2-2.

“I thought he played a strong game, played physical, playing in your face,” forward Matthew Tkachuk said of Mikkola’s Game 4 performance. “I thought the biggest play of the night was him poke-checking it and causing the turnover which led to the Barky (Barkov) breakaway, which led to the power play, which led to the goal. There are little moments in games that people might not think about or talk about that are so important, and that was probably the biggest moment.”

Playing alongside Brandon Montour on Florida’s second-defensive pairing, Mikkola, a hulking 6-foot-4 Finnish defenseman, has been a reliable force on the backend all season for the Panthers.

Playing in all 82 games, the 28-year-old registered a career-high 17 points (three goals, 14 assists), +11 plus/minus rating, 69 penalty minutes, 124 block shots (team high) and 198 hits (team high).

“He’s been great,” said forward Anton Lundell, a fellow Finn in South Florida. “Niko is an awesome guy. Also helps that he’s a Finn, so that makes it even better. He’s a great add to the team. He brings so much to the team on and off the ice. He’s strong and hard to play against, so it’s more fun to have him on our team then the opposite. He’s been unreal and we all appreciate it a lot.”

Bringing his physical style of play from the regular season into the playoffs, Mikkola has recorded three points (one goal, two assists), 22 blocked shots and 44 hits through 15 playoffs games.

Prior to the team’s departure to New York for Game 5, I had the chance to catch up with Mikkola to talk about the Eastern Conference Final, his chemistry with Montour and much more.

DARRAGH: A big overtime win last night. How do you guys ride this momentum into Game 5 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday?

MIKKOLA: We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. I think the whole series we’ve been playing pretty good. We executed a little bit better last night, so we just need to keep doing what we’re doing.

DARRAGH: You made a big play forcing the turnover in overtime that eventually set up the power play and game-winner. On social media, we also saw you get the game puck after the win from Matthew Tkachuk. How does that build your confidence moving forward?

MIKKOLA: We’ve been doing tight gaps all series and I think that was the key. I just got my stick on the pass and Barky (Barkov) was flying down the ice and did most of the job. I think the way we’ve been playing and the tight gaps, each game my confidence has been building.

DARRAGH: What do you think has been working well for you in the playoffs?

MIKKOLA: First things first, the defense has been pretty solid, and Bob (Sergei Bobrovsky) is a big part of it, making the big saves when we need some help. I think just playing my own game, being physical and staying on guys.

DARRAGH: What’s been the key to slowing down the superstars on New York?

MIKKOLA: Defense with all five guys and tight gaps. You can’t give too much room with the top guys because they’re going to make the plays, so you need to take the ice away.

DARRAGH: You guys have played against three of the best goalies in the league through the first three rounds of the playoffs. How do you stick to your game and not get frustrated when they’re playing well?

MIKKOLA: We’ve been getting our chances. We just need to bury when we get the chance. There’s going to be good goalies. It’s the Conference Finals, so nothing is free over there. We just need to keep doing what we are doing, and I think we will be fine.

DARRAGH: What’s it been like playing with Brandon Montour this year?

MIKKOLA: He’s got a lot of energy and does a lot of talking on the ice. It’s fun. He’s a great player with his skating, making plays, and has an unbelievable shot. I’ve been enjoying it.

DARRAGH: Before the playoffs you mentioned that you couldn’t wait for the fans and playoff atmosphere at Amerant Bank Arena. Now through two and a half rounds what can you say about the atmosphere of the arena?

MIKKOLA: It’s been unbelievable. The arena has been full all season, especially in playoffs you can hear the crowd. They get buzzing when we hit people or score a goal. They’ve been our seventh guy on the ice.

DARRAGH: How would you describe your experience during your first season in Florida?

MIKKOLA: I’ve been loving it. It’s a tight group with great players, a great organization, and new practice rink. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing hockey.

DARRAGH: When you’ve had off days, what do you like to do in your free time down here?

MIKKOLA: Pretty basic stuff, walk around and be in the sun. Right now, I just try to rest on the off days and recover.

DARRAGH: What do you like to do on the plane to kill time?

MIKKOLA: Play some cards and talk with the boys. Our game is seven up, seven down. There’s a couple bad players and a couple good ones. Lars (Oliver Ekman-Larsson) is good.

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