Sunday, December 26, 2021

Blues finding quickly that Mikkola-Parayko pair establishing itself as quite a shutdown duo

Team going to tall, bulky, long-stick tandem to shut down opposition 
much like Blues used in Cup run when it had Bouwmeester-Parayko

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- One of the constants for the Blues during their inspirational run towards their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2019 was the ever-present and consistent game of defensive pair Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defensemen Colton Parayko (left) and Niko Mikkola celebrate a
Parayko goal in a recent 4-1 win in Dallas against the Stars.

When called upon, that dynamic duo was on the ice instantaneously when the Blues needed to blanket the opponent, and when it came to shadowing, hounding and for all intents and purposes, shut down the dynamic trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in the Cup Final that year, unless it was on the power play, that trio was completely shut down.

The Bouwmeester-Parayko duo did not allow a 5-on-5 goal the entire series, and it was one of several key factors as to why the Blues won.

Maybe it's not quite at that level, yet, if it gets there at all, but maybe the Blues have found some footing again, this time with Parayko and 25-year-old Finn Niko Mikkola.

It's a pair that coach Craig Berube began using on a regular basis Nov. 26 at Chicago and one that's been called upon quite often recently for the Blues (17-9-5) in their string of points in 10 of 12 games (7-2-3).

It didn't start that way. The duo had their moments, some tough moments, but as they've built up the chemistry together, it's become quite the dynamic duo.

"It's been fun to play with 'Pary,'" Mikkola said. "I think we are getting better every game. It feels pretty good."

Mikkola, a 2015 fifth-round pick, had to earn his way not only into the top pair but into the lineup, period. He didn't play his first game this season until Oct. 30 against Chicago and had to work his way in as the seventh defenseman and just continue to work until given a shot.

"He's gaining confidence as a player," Berube said. "He's improved a lot over the last year in my opinion and I think he's still improving. He's shown us that he can handle the minutes and that he's doing a good job so we'll just continue to keep working with him. He's got to keep improving and we've got to keep working with him. There's still a higher window there for him."

Mikkola, who has two goals and two assists in 16 games this season, started the year behind Parayko, Torey Krug, Justin Faulk, Marco Scandella and Robert Bortuzzo. 

"It was tough," Mikkola said. "It was not easy to only watch the games and not playing. It just made me try to focus and work hard, be ready when you get your chance. That's what I've been doing."

And doing it well.

"Niko’s a really good player," Parayko said. "He’s really strong. Big guy just like me. When you get forwards coming down on us if we’re tight on our gaps it’s tough for them to gain the blueline and hopefully we can be tight on them and make it difficult on them in the D-zone. And we can try to be quick and on them quick as well.

"Smart player, moves his feet extremely well. So he’s fairly easy to play with and just look forward to continue to progress with him and get better."

Parayko, 28, started off the season well after a tough and arduous season dealing with a lingering back issue that made it quite obvious the 6-foot-6, 228-pound St. Albert, Alberta native wasn't himself.

"Skating is one thing that I try to use for sure. Obviously my size and my stick reach and stuff like that is good defensively," Parayko said. "It helps me out a lot. But when I’m skating I think, especially on first touch coming out of our zone, if I can try to bring one of their guys towards me, it’s obviously gonna open up one of our guys. I feel like I can escape, and make sure I’m in spots to help our guys, too. Like give them an option when they need help. So maybe bring a defender my way to open up a space for them. So I think skating is definitely one of my better attributes that if I’m using it is good.

"I guess just being down low and obviously I’ve got caught down low in the O-zone a couple times. The puck has come to me and been lucky in the right spot at the right time to get a couple goals there. I guess that’s why maybe it’s a little more noticeable."

Parayko went through a stretch of four games Nov. 9-14 where he was a minus-8. He and Scandella were partnered up together and just couldn't quite form enough of that shutdown pair the Blues had to have; he's still 19th in the NHL in average ice time at 24:15.

"There were some times where maybe not necessarily the way things you want to go for me," Parayko said. "But I always make sure that I’m playing my best out there and trying to do my best. The game happens fast, and sometimes things don’t go your way. It’s an 82-game season and it’s a long season, for it always to go your way and the way you want them to go. It’s going to be tough. So it’s on me, and I guess everybody, to make sure that they can stay with it consistently. Keep coming to the rink, head down and just working hard and making sure that you’re ready for the next one."

Berube pushed the Scandella-Parayko pairing but it was obviously not working, so the Blues coach went to old reliable, a pairing he was familiar with in 2019. With Parayko at 6-6 and Mikkola at 6-4, with their long sticks on the ice at all times, it's been a challenge to penetrate that duo.

"I think they've learned to really feed off each other defensively," Berube said. "Right now, they're both playing aggressive and closing plays out and killing plays in our own zone and breaking plays up and getting the puck out of our zone. Colton does it differently than Mikkola. Colton a lot of times skates pucks out of our end with his ability to move his feet and get up the ice. Mikkola's doing a good job defending in our own zone and then you see him score a shorthanded goal the other night, he's up in the play quite a bit. I don't know if you notice that, but he's learned to jump up in the play. He's got a good offensive mind that way. He may not have all the offensive abilities, but his mind works that way and he's done a good job of it."

Mikkola started the season averaging 14:15 in his first nine games, but with the coaching staff's trust, he's averaged 19:58 his past six games.

"I've been feeling pretty good with my game and just trying to do my things and play hard," Mikkola said. "I think I'm also gaining more confidence on the ice. Maybe that's why.

"Maybe understanding the plays I need to make."

It's good making comparisons between Bouwmeester-Parayko and Mikkola-Parayko. The end result with the front pair ended well.

Both pairs had the ability to jump into the rush when called upon but know when to to check back and play the defensive side of the puck.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko has found himself a capable partner in a
shutdown role with Niko Mikkola.

"He's a little bit different than 'Bouw,'" Berube said of Mikkola. "'Bouw' is a more calm player, I would say. Nothing changed throughout the game for 'Bouw'. You're talking about a world-class player in 'Bouw'. He's an Olympic gold medalist twice, I think. He was a helluva player for a long time. Mikkola does it a little bit differently, but again, we've had these guys together for quite some time now and they're really starting to form a really good chemistry between them like 'Bouw' and Parayko did. That's good for us. We need a pair like that. Just like Krug and Faulk, they really got good last year as a pair and really it's not changed throughout this year."

What Parayko has seen is, "They’re both similar in the way that they make the simple," he said. "They both skate really well and they’re both easy to play with. I think we have a few little things that we can continue to work on and get better. Just sorting different things out in the D-zone and faceoffs, etc., like that. But those just come with time, those go with reps in the games. That’s just the nature of getting paired with the new guy. Like I said, I’m excited. He’s eager to learn. He’s eager to get better. Comes to the rink with an open mind every day. When you have a D-partner like that it’s exciting. We’re definitely looking forward to getting better."

Either way, if the latter can come anywhere close to the ones that paved the way in the Cup season, the Blues are in a good position to continue to trend upwards on the back line.

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