Barkov FLA force all playoffs tune in TONIGHT

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Wayne Gretzky reached back into history to find a comparison.

“I just said to my wife sitting there during the first period, I said, ‘No. 16 is the best defensive hockey player I’ve seen since Bryan Trottier.’ … And he’s good offensively, too, like Trottier was,” Gretzky said on the Sportsnet panel during the first intermission of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It was a high compliment for Aleksander Barkov, a high compliment for a player who historically has been overlooked and underappreciated but who, with the retirement of former Boston Bruins center and six-time winner of the Frank J. Selke Trophy, Patrice Bergeron, has been elevated to the best defensive center in the NHL.

It seems, finally, that Barkov is getting his due.

Barkov, after all, has helped lead the Florida Panthers to the Cup Final for the second straight season, an impact player offensively and defensively, getting them to the position where they lead the best-of-7 series 1-0 against the Edmonton Oilers heading into Game 2 at Amerant Bank Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN, TVAS, CBC).

Aleksander Barkov joins NHL Now

“Wow,” Barkov said Sunday, when apprised of Gretzky’s comment. “Coming from him, especially, means a lot. Everyone knows what he’s done to the game of hockey. And when you hear stuff, especially people like him saying stuff like that, it obviously means a lot.”

Barkov, who has been in the NHL for 11 seasons, won the Selke this season for the second time -- he also won in 2021 -- after a year in which he had 80 points (23 goals, 57 assists) and was plus-33 in 73 games, dominating in all situations.

He’s a player who doesn’t fit neatly into any one box because he checks all of them.

“I don’t view Barkov as a shutdown center because he doesn’t hit the ice with the idea of, ‘This is all I will do,’” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s wired first to think defensively, team hockey first. But he’s a pretty gifted dynamic man as well.

“He carries that weight of having to do both. And there’s a challenge to it, but as you will see, there’s always a give-and-take in that. We need Barkov also to push the offensive envelope, to make the play he made on the first goal. So, it’s not a sit-back, gap game where all he does is grind it out. He’s far more gifted than that.”

That was clear in Game 1 on Saturday when Barkov had two assists in a 3-0 win, tying him with Matthew Tkachuk for Florida’s playoff lead with 19 points. Barkov has six goals and 13 assists this postseason, including three game-winning goals, also tied for the team lead with Carter Verhaeghe. It’s an improvement from a year ago, when he had 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 21 games when the Panthers lost the Cup Final in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.

EDM@FLA SCF, Gm1: Verhaeghe wires in the game-opener off Barkov's feed

“’Barky’s’ our leader and captain, and he’s such a force on the ice,” Verhaeghe said. “He covers so much ice. It’s really easy to play with him. I just kind of go back -- he gets the puck, he always seems to get a stick on the puck defensively and break the puck out.

“That’s kind of what he did on the goal. He was in a good position, starting low, and made great plays in the neutral zone, drove the middle. He’s so big and so fast and makes such good plays that it’s easy to play with him. I just went to the net, put it on my stick.”

The result? Florida’s first goal, at 3:59 of the first period, which eventually stood as the game-winner.

And Tkachuk can be pointed to as the team’s emotional leader, but Barkov remains the soul of the Panthers, the player who their on-ice play revolves around.

“He’s a big part of the whole organization,” defenseman Niko Mikkola said. “I think he’s the face of this hockey team. … He’s an example on the ice and off the ice. He is not the loudest guy, but when he is talking, everybody is listening.”

Indeed, Barkov is contributing in every facet -- offensively, defensively, and in the dressing room. He is the Panthers, who are three wins away from the Stanley Cup.

“He’s been a force all playoffs,” Verhaeghe said. “He’s such a huge part of our team, affects the game so much in so many different ways. We love having him.”

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