‘He’s everything for us’: Why Aleksander Barkov is the Cup Final’s best skater

Panthers forward Anton Lundell says he can't say enough about captain Aleksander Barkov as a player and teammate, saying it's been such a pleasure getting to know him and see how hard he works on and off the ice everyday.

EDMONTON — Sharing another playoff victory podium with Aleksander Barkov Thursday night, Sam Bennett is asked to speak about the best skater in the Stanley Cup Final.

Bennett turns to his left, smiles, and preps his teammate: “Close your ears.”

As the bearded bulldog gushes about his captain’s leadership and defensive conscience and game-breaking ability, Barkov presses his chin to his chest. His ears are open, but he averts his eyes.

Surely, the two-time Selke champ — routinely exalted by his peers as one of the sport’s most underrated talents — has been showered with these compliment storms before. But there is a visible humility, a downright shyness, as the Connor McDavid antidote and Conn Smythe contender is getting held up as one of the primary reasons for the Florida Panthers being one win from history.

“It’s pretty special to see a guy so committed, as gifted as he is offensively, he’s so committed to playing defence and shutting guys down, blocking shots,” Bennett says.

“When you have your all-star captain playing that way, it carries on to every single guy in the locker room.”

What those who watch him closest say about Barkov is what they said about Patrice Bergeron. They talk about his elite hockey brain and his dependability, his quiet example and his contagious work ethic, his inclusiveness and his unflappability. 

They describe him as a 30-goal, 70-point talent who would have no trouble scoring 50 and 100 if he prioritized individual stats. But, of course, he would never do that.

At 28 and teased with 2023’s gutting trip to Round 4, there is no temptation to cheat the play with Barkov. There is only the proper play.

“He is everything for us,” says Matthew Tkachuk, whose own maturity and defensive buy-in owes an assist to Barkov.

“He’s our best player, and he’s been showing it all playoffs,” adds Carter Verhaeghe. “He’s our leader, and we just try to follow him.”

Take, for example, two pivotal moments of Game 3 in raucous, hostile Edmonton.

With Brett Kulak dragging Tkachuk off the ice late in the first period with coincidental roughing minors (good trade for the Oilers), two minutes of 4-on-4 should have favoured the home team. The frustrated McDavid and Leon Draisaitl would be granted more space.

Yet it was Barkov who stripped Evan Bouchard at the defensive blueline, rushed in transition, used his Jagr-esque haunches to protect the puck, then found the open man, Gustav Forsling (who should’ve been picked up by one of those Edmonton forwards on a backcheck) for a bang-bang-bang opening goal, sucking oxygen out of Rogers Place.

Vintage Barkov, whose very identity has become the team’s.

“Starts in his own zone. Wins the puck battle,” Evan Rodrigues recounts. 

“Doesn’t try to make a skilled play. Just takes it up the wall, fends (Bouchard) off, turns up, finds a late guy, and ends up in the back of the net. Simple playoff hockey. And he’s been doing a great job for us all playoffs long.”

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Later, on his only shot on goal all night, Barkov buried the eventual game-winner.

The centreman’s multi-point effort gives him two through three games in the Final and eight during the playoffs, a Panthers record. Four of his seven playoff goals are winners, tying another club record. This after a Draisaitl shiver took him out of Game 2 prematurely and temporarily put his Game 3 availability in doubt.

“It shows the character of him and how bad he wants it,” wingman Sam Reinhart says, “to get back and not really miss much else.”

And yet, despite Barkov’s team-leading 21 points…

“Some of the games where he’s had the most impact, he doesn’t show up on the scoresheet. What his gift is, he defines everyone else’s game. Aleksander Barkov, this is what I’m willing to do. This is how I’m going to play the game,” coach Paul Maurice says.

“This is my favourite line of all rookies: I’ve just got to play my game. You don’t have a game. You don’t have one. But that guy’s got a game. Why don’t you just play like him? Talk about quiet leadership. And I learn too as I go, he’s a unique personality. But his consistency with that game and the number of nights that he’s not on the scoresheet necessarily but everybody on the bench is going, ‘Oh, my God, that guy’s a player,’ that’s his gift to us.”

The trail of flummoxed superstars Barkov & Co. have left drowning in their wake is well told. Hart Trophy–conversation studs like Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrnak and Artemi Panarin have seen their points-per-game shrivel and their lockers cleaned out. Now, McDavid (no goals) and Draisaitl (no points) are staring at the same fate.

Maurice will sic his man on the opposition’s best with last change at home. 

“But then you get on the road, and maybe we look at Sasha Barkov a little differently. You look at the offensive side of his game,” Maurice says. “There’s the give and take that we would lose the Selke-ness against possibly the other team’s (top players), but we’re also then going to get a guy that’s a point-a-game-plus guy. And the guy on his wing scored 57.”

Kyle Okposo is Florida’s fourth-line winger, its deadline depth rental, and a sentimental Cup favourite. With some laughs, he explains why he was so close to the Prince of Wales Trophy following the Panthers’ Eastern Conference win over New York.

“I didn’t want to be next to the trophy,” the role player says. “I went to go skate by him, and Barky grabs me: ‘Oaky, Oaky! You gotta get in here!’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ And he grabbed me and put me in there. I was just trying not to slip on the carpet and hit the trophy. Then Bill (Daly) came in and tried to nudge me closer to the trophy. I was uncomfortable the whole time.

“But it just shows the kind of guy Barky is. He takes care of all the little things in his own way. He doesn’t say a lot, but he speaks louder than anybody else because of how he acts. You couldn’t ask for a better guy to wear the ‘C’ for this organization, because of who Sasha Barkov is.”

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Win Game 4 Saturday, and Barkov will become the first European captain in NHL history to help his club sweep the Final. Win any of the next four, and he’ll be the first Finnish-born player to captain a Cup champion.

“Well, it’s there for us. But you don’t think about it. You can’t think about it,” Barkov said Thursday night, after raising his gaze from the ground.

“I just do what I can do in the moment. And if it’s make a defensive play, I’m trying my best to do the defensive play. It’s pretty much everyone on our team. When you have to defend, you defend as hard as possible. When you can play offence, play offence. 

“When you do the right things and when you trust your linemates, teammates, good things happen.”

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