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MARQUEE MATCHUP

Top lines, featuring 2013 draftees Elias Lindholm and Aleksander Barkov, set to face off

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Back then, they were the talk of the prospect world. The next big thing from the NHL's growing European stable.

Here we are, six years on, and nothing has changed.

Except, maybe, the stage.

"Elite?" Elias Lindholm, the fifth pick in the same draft year, rhetorically asked of his Nordic counterpart, Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who went second. "No question.

"I've seen and played against him for almost 10 years.

"He was good then, and what can you say about him now? There aren't many players like him."

Back in the winter of 2013, these two had a race of their own as the runaway talent among European prospects. They were 1-2 in NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings, and by the time June rolled around, they were tied at the hip.

Still.

"There was a lot of talk about who would be drafted first between the two of us, and if either of us had a shot at going first overall," Lindholm said. "It was fun. It was fun to be a part of that conversation and to have the chance to play a few games head-to-head before the draft.

"Personally, I didn't think too much about it. But we both, obviously, wanted to be the best we could be, so of course there moments where we really wanted to (one-up) the other.

"I guess we'll get another chance tonight."

For years, Barkov has been considered one of the most underappreciated players in the league. Lindholm - who can easily lay claim to that as well, having already set new career highs in both goals (21) and points (51) - believes those days are over.

"With the year he's having, the NHL is really getting to know how good he is," Lindholm said prior to Friday's tilt with Barkov and the visiting Panthers. "He's been underrated for years. To see how good he is with the puck, the skill he has, and how he always plays those tough matchups, it's pretty impressive to see. It's fun to see him do well.

"He's definitely an elite player."

And still somewhat of a hidden gem.

Barkov, just 23, is not only an up-and-coming offensive dynamo, he's also one of the NHL's top shutdown forwards.

Panthers head coach Bob Boughner told NHL.com last week that the 6-foot-3, 215 lb. pivot is used in "every crucial defensive situation (they) have," with the heaviest of all matchups. He gets a steady diet of the other teams' best players and does so in unfavourable conditions, starting more than 53% of his shifts in the defensive zone.

His 46.8% offensive-zone start percentage ranks 26th among the Panthers' 28 skaters this year.

And yet, amid all that, he has 17 goals and 43 points and is on pace for a career high in both categories.

On the other side, Lindholm, a fellow youngster truly emerging as one of the league's elite marksmen and - like Barkov - doing so with hefty defensive responsibilities, primarily on the penalty kill.

Two players destined for stardom only six years ago, to now - celebrity status in tow - at the apex of their development, set to collide at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Head-to-head, best-on-best, once more.

"When we were 16, 17, 18 years old, those were the (defining) years of our career," Lindholm said. "We played against each other the Champions League, the World Juniors, and a couple of other times when we were younger. It was fun. Even at that age you could see how good he was and what kind of player he was going to turn into.

"I'm Swedish and he's Finnish, but I wouldn't say it was a 'rivalry.' We were really competitive and wanted to be better than each other, for sure, but we were friends more than anything. Then going through the draft together - we were both Top 5 picks - that pretty cool, too.

"He's a nice guy and a great player.

"It should be fun to up against him tonight."

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