Panthers' Aleksander Barkov becomes the first Stanley Cup-winning captain from Finland

Tue, Jun 25, 2024
NHL News (AP)

Panthers' Aleksander Barkov becomes the first Stanley Cup-winning captain from Finland

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - A Finnish flag waved prominently in the stands as the Florida Panthers celebrated with the Stanley Cup. Aleksander Barkov held his 2-year-old child in his arms minutes after getting the trophy from Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The first championship in franchise history was made possible by a handful of Finns, none more effective than Barkov, who became the first captain from his country to be presented and then hoist the Cup.

"I was young when I came here, so I never thought I could celebrate someday with my kid," Barkov said. "Unreal feeling."

Asked during the series about being the first Finnish Stanley Cup-winning captain, the 28-year-old responded: "I don't know what it would mean for the country. It would mean a lot for me."

Barkov led the way with a dominant two-way postseason, tying for the team lead with 22 points in 24 games and defensively shutting down star opponents throughout the run, from Boston's David Pastrnak to New York's Artemi Panarin and eventually Edmonton's Connor McDavid, who had no points in Games 6 and 7 of the final.

"It starts with Barkov and filters down," coach Paul Maurice said.

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Barkov led a team full of Canadians, Swedes, Russians, Americans - and was one of four Finns in the lineup for the Cup clincher, along with forwards Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen and defenseman Niko Mikkola. One of Maurice's assistants, former player Tuomo Ruutu, is also Finnish.

Maurice said Ruutu is "harder on those guys than the rest." Barkov is the guy Lundell, 22, and Luostarinen, 25, idolize.

"Everybody who grows up playing hockey in Finland, they look up to guys here, and Sasha's one guy we all want to be one day," Lundell said. "You grow up watching his highlights. You go to practice, you want to do (drills) the same way he does them. We all have idols, but I have to say, I think he's the biggest idol in Finland."

Mom Olga Barkova, still could not believe it in the aftermath of the Game 7 win.

"It's been really exciting for the whole family," she said. "We support each other. So happy this was the last game and they won. Maybe I understand this tomorrow when I see all the pictures."

Barkov's picture-perfect postseason came on the heels of earning Selke Trophy honors as the best defensive forward in the NHL.

Veteran Kyle Okposo, who joined Florida at the trade deadline, admired him as an opponent for just how suffocating he is defensively and compared Barkov to six-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron.

"Just the way that he thinks about the game, you don't see many players that have that (who) are so talented offensively," Okposo said. "When (Bergeron) hung up his skates in Boston, he was the other guy that never cheated the game. That's not something that a lot of special offensive players have in their game."

One play in Game 3 crystallized how much of an impact Barkov can have. He forced Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard to lose the puck, outworked him to get it and set up Florida's goal that silenced the raucous crowd in Edmonton.

"Doesn't try to make a skilled play, just takes it up the wall, fends him off, turns up, finds a late guy and ends up in the back of the net," forward Evan Rodrigues said. "Simple playoff hockey and he's (done) a great job for us all playoffs long."

While McDavid won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, Barkov was second after carrying the Panthers through the Lightning, Bruins, Rangers and Oilers. He was one of only a few homegrown players on Florida's roster.

"He's our leader," forward Sam Bennett said. "He plays the game the right way. It's pretty special to see a guy so committed, as gifted as he is offensively, he's so committed to playing defense and shutting guys down, blocking shots. When you have your All-Star captain playing that way, it carries on to every single guy in the locker room."

Barkov is just the fifth European captain to hoist the Cup after Nicklas Lidstrom with Detroit in 2008, Zdeno Chara with Boston in 2011, Alex Ovechkin with Washington in 2018 and Gabriel Landeskog with Colorado in 2022.

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

STEPHEN WHYNO DC-based hockey writer covering NHL, Capitals and Commanders twitter mailto "
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