Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers' reluctant star, leads without having to say much

Sun, May 19, 2024
NHL News (AP)

Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers' reluctant star, leads without having to say much

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - Here's the list of Aleksander Barkov's top highlights from the Florida-Boston series: the go-ahead goal that sparked a Game 2 victory, scoring a spectacular game-winning goal to cap a comeback in Game 4, then blocking a shot late in Game 6 to keep things tied about 90 seconds before the Panthers won the game and clinched the series.

He did it all. And Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk heaped praise his way afterward.

"I don't really even have words for what he's doing for our team right now," Tkachuk said. "He's playing the best hockey in the world right now. He's the best player in the world right now on both ends of the ice. He's been unbelievable."

The Panthers have plenty of standouts - among them, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been stellar, Tkachuk is always dangerous, Sam Reinhart has scored more than 60 goals combined in the regular season and playoffs and Gustav Forsling is clearly one of the NHL's best defensemen. But the unquestioned leader in the room is Barkov, who hoisted the Prince of Wales Trophy last season after Florida won the Eastern Conference for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Panthers will aim to win it again starting Wednesday when this year's East finals against the New York Rangers begins at Madison Square Garden.

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Florida's captain - and now a two-time Selke Trophy winner as the best defensive forward in the NHL, this year's voting for that award getting announced Saturday - is a quiet, almost reluctant superstar, someone who can still be unrecognized in public on occasion. In private, those around the Panthers say he's the funniest player in the room. But ask Barkov about himself and the conversation won't go too far; he just won't sing his own praises under any circumstances.

So, the Panthers must do all the bragging on his behalf.

"He is the perfect man to be captain of the Florida Panthers," coach Paul Maurice said.

The voting for the Selke was done long before Friday night, when Barkov stuck his left hand in the way of a blast from Boston star David Pastrnak with 2:58 left in the third period of what was a 1-1 game. It was on the power play and Pastrnak - who doesn't miss in these moments - had plenty of net to shoot at following a cross-slot pass. If someone didn't block it, Pastrnak was almost certainly scoring and Florida would be facing a Game 7.

Barkov got his hand on the puck just enough to deflect it. He went down the tunnel shortly afterward for evaluation, clearly hurting. It was the sort of play where he could have easily broken his hand. But it seems he was fine, the Panthers scored about 90 seconds after the block and Barkov was back on the ice to celebrate the series being over.

"Any blocked shot, in playoffs especially, they're big," Barkov said. "Our guys sacrifice everything for that."

They do it because their leader does it. What Barky does, teammates do. It's that simple.

"This award is deserved recognition of not only his talent and effort but also his selfless devotion to his team," Panthers president of hockey operations and general manager Bill Zito said after the Selke was announced Saturday night. "His commitment to training and preparation are second to none in this league. We all follow Sasha's lead and are proud to have him as our captain."

Everyone obviously enjoys winning, but few on the Panthers fully understand the journey the franchise took on its way to back-to-back NHL final fours better than Barkov. His first eight seasons in Florida resulted in zero playoff series wins. The team, more often than not, stunk. He played for six different coaches in his first seven Florida seasons. The building was listed as half-full for some home games, which seemed like some mighty generous ticket-counting.

Now, tickets are darn near impossible to get. South Florida used to be just a football market. Then the Miami Heat started winning and eroded some of football's stranglehold, even using "Basketball Town" in some marketing. And these days, South Florida sure seems like a hockey town with Barkov certainly among the biggest reasons for the turnaround.

"His level of preparation is something that I haven't seen very often in my career," said Kyle Okposo, who was Buffalo's captain before a midseason trade to the Panthers. "Everybody here has no choice but to follow that example. There's no excuse to be tired for a day and to not do what is required of you that day because he's setting the example to go above and beyond what's expected of him - because he wants to be the best you've ever seen."

Barkov's No. 16 jersey will hang over the ice in Florida one day, because he's going to retire with just about every team record that skaters can have. Most goals, most assists, most points, most games, all that and more.

The way Maurice sees it, Barkov could have that jersey retired for his character alone.

"He treats the 13th forward here the same way he treats (anyone). He views them the same. They're teammates," Maurice said. "And he treats everyone like that. The trainers, the flight crew, anyone that's part of our group. He has this big kind of wake that he leaves of really the right thing of pro sports. If your kid's buying a sweater, throw Barkov on the back. You're good. You'll get to keep that for a long time."

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

TIM REYNOLDS Reynolds is an Associated Press sports writer, based in South Florida. twitter mailto "
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