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Jan 5, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Niko Mikkola (77) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) exchange punches during the second period at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Niko Mikkola clearly is a defenseman you don't look forward to facing, whether you're a St. Louis Blues teammate or a superstar on the other bench.

"He's big, he plays mean, he plays hard," veteran Blues forward Tyler Bozak said. "'Annoying,' I guess, would be the word on the ice. I think the best D that are hard to play against are like that. ... Even in practice, he's not fun to play against. He plays you hard, and I think that's why he's improving the way that he is."

Veteran forward Brandon Saad feels similarly.

"He's got a big body, a long reach, he's tough to play against in practice," he said. "So you can see with his physicality and the way he closes on guys, he's having a lot of success."

Of course, the Blues are more interested in Mikkola putting his 6-foot-4, 209-pound frame to use against opponents.

"He's done a really good job with that, getting under guys' skin, not caring who it is and playing hard on them," Bozak said. "... He's one of those guys that is always on you on the ice, he's always finishing his check, he's always playing you hard, not letting anyone off the hook."

Not even if your name is Sidney Crosby. Mikkola got into it with the Pittsburgh forward in a Blues loss to the Penguins last week, a second-period sequence in which both players drew two-minute minors for slashing. Mikkola not only didn't shy away from the 34-year-old superstar, he whaled away and drew blood.

Bozak, for one, was pretty surprised to see the 25-year-old fighting one of the game's most revered stars.

"Yeah, a little bit," he said. "I mean, not usually the guy that guys go after. There's a lot that you probably have to deal with after that, yourself in the game. You'll have the whole other team coming after you. So it takes a lot of courage."

Mikkola had trouble getting into the lineup for the first month of the season but has made himself hard to scratch since late November. He has played in 21 games, fewer than 16 of his teammates, but ranks seventh with 41 hits and fifth with 27 blocked shots. His average ice time of 17:27 ranks fifth among Blues defensemen and is on the rise; he has been under that average only once in his last 12 games.

"He just keeps getting better," Bozak said.

"On the defensive side of things, (he's) reading plays and using his stick to break up plays and things like that," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "He's starting to read when to be aggressive and when to pull back and stay more patient at times."

Offensively, the native of Finland has two goals (one short-handed) and two assists for four points, one more point than he tallied in 30 games last season.

"His puck play has gotten better," Berube said. "He's making more plays with the puck and doing a good job there. Again, he jumps up in the play pretty well, too, offensively."

COVID-19 has hit the Blues' defensive corps even harder than it hit the rest of the team this season, claiming everyone except Marco Scandella at some point, including Colton Parayko and rookie Scott Perunovich in the last week. Mikkola tested positive in early November, long before he had become a regular. There's no guarantee Mikkola will keep suiting up when everyone is healthy, but he's certainly giving the coaching staff much to think about.

"He's been a big part of our team in winning," Saad said, "and a lot of fun to watch as well."

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