SUNRISE, Fla. -- It’s unlikely Aleksander Barkov will ever be underappreciated again.

The captain of the Florida Panthers -- and the most important player on the team -- is a Stanley Cup champion after playing a key role in a 2-1 victory against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday to help win the first championship in franchise history.

“It was our dream and now it’s our reality,” Barkov said, standing at center ice soon after he received the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and took it for the first of what would become countless celebratory spins by his teammates.

Barkov is the first Finland-born NHL captain to win the Stanley Cup.

“It’s a great honor,” he said. “Finland is a huge, huge hockey country and there have been a lot of great captains from Finland.”

It’s becoming harder and harder to argue the fact that Barkov could be the best of the lot.

Especially after his performance across the past two weeks.

His offensive numbers weren’t gaudy. He had five points (two goals, three assists) in seven games in the Final and 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in 24 playoff games.

Aleksander Barkov lifts the Stanley Cup after Game 7 win

It was what he did in limiting Edmonton’s top players, especially Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, that was eye-opening.

McDavid was given the Conn Smythe Award as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after scoring 42 points (eight goals, 34 assists) in 25 postseason games.

McDavid sealed his win with an otherworldly performance in back to-back elimination games in Game 4 and Game 5. He had four-point performances in each game, the only player to ever do that in the history of the Final.

But he was held without a point in each of the past two games.

In Game 7, with everything on the line and the Oilers doubling up McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line and double shifting that line in the third period, McDavid finished with two shots and six attempts in 25:42 of ice time. Draisaitl, who had 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in the playoffs, had no shots and three attempts in 22:22 of ice time. He had three assists in the series.

Barkov, it seemed, was on the hip of McDavid wherever the Oilers captain wanted to go.

“He’s the best defensive player for a reason and he shuts out top guys,” Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. “So there is no surprise he did that tonight.”

He did it throughout the playoffs. 

In the first round, he frustrated Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had a League-leading 144 points (44 goals, 100 assists) during the regular season. In the second round, it was David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, who had 110 regular-season points (47 goals, 63 assists). In the Eastern Conference Final, it was Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers, who had 120 points (49 goals, 71 assists) in the regular season.

SCF, Gm7: Oilers @ Panthers Recap

Across two months, Barkov made the No. 1 (Kucherov), No. 3 (McDavid), No. 4 (Panarin), No. 5 (Pastrnak) and No. 7 (Draisaitl) scorers in the League look pedestrian.

Along the way, people realized what his teammates always knew.

During Game 1 of the Final, Wayne Gretzky, the game’s best-ever scorer, compared Barkov to Bryan Trottier of the New York Islanders. Trottier was the defensive heartbeat of the Islanders dynasty, and the first time Gretzky played him in the Final, he was frustrated and limited.

Now, it’s Barkov that has that mantle, Gretzky said.

“He's just phenomenal,” said Florida forward Kyle Okposo. “I don't have the physical gifts to do what he does, but just the way that he thinks about the game, you don't see many players that have that, that are so talented offensively as well.

“That's not something that a lot of special offensive players have in their game. That's why I admire him so much. He was so suffocating as an opponent.”

Fourth-line forward Kevin Stenlund, who is valued for his defensive acumen, says he has never seen a player quite like Barkov.

“He has been unbelievable all season,” he said. “He’s been our best player all season and he was tonight. It is amazing to see.”

Anton Lundell is 22. He grew up in Finland emulating the game of Barkov, who is six years older. Some around the Panthers call Lundell “Baby Barkov.”

Lundell says as big as Barkov is becoming here, he remains bigger in Finland.

He is a national hero in that hockey-mad country. Young players watch him and try to emulate him, as difficult as that is.

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

Just as importantly, Barkov is a great guy, the glue that holds the team together. He has been that since he arrived during the 2013-14 season.

He remained that way through several lean years with the Panthers when there wasn’t much to celebrate. He makes sure that everyone is involved. He can be funny when he needs to be, although it is understated in that Finnish way, and he leads by example.

Forward Matthew Tkachuk arrived here last season in a blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames. He is brash. He can score goals. He can dominate a room. He can lead men. He drags those around him into the fight.

But he understood immediately that the Panthers were Barkov’s team. They belonged to the quiet, earnest, determined man who took his job seriously, maybe too seriously at times.

The Panthers are a reflection of their captain, Tkachuk realized almost immediately.

“Best teammate I've ever had,” Tkachuk said Monday. “Best player. Best leader. So thankful that I'm able to ride shotgun with him on occasion. He's the real deal and I'm so happy for him. He's been here for a long time, through the ups and downs, and he deserves this as much as anybody.

“We're going to party hard tonight.”

Party like champions, which was the one title that is no longer absent from Barkov’s impressive resume.

Related Content