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Big Building Blocks

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

In looking back at the impressive come-from-behind victory against the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday night, one question stood out.

What was the Panthers’ most impressive individual effort during the game? Was it Nick Bjugstad’s game-tying goal in the third period? Or was it Aleksander Barkov’s goal in the first round of the shootout?

On the one hand, Bjugstad showed power and skill in getting past Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk along the boards and then a nice touch in lifting a high shot over goalie Jimmy Howard. And let’s add to the degree of difficulty on this goal, the fact that Datsyuk isn’t just one of the most gifted stickhandlers and playmakers in the NHL, he’s also a three-time winner and six-time finalist of the Selke Award as the league’s best defensive forward.

But on the other hand, Barkov’s shootout goal was just sick, as he deked to his forehand, moved his body that way, then at the last second put the puck on his backhand and slid it into the open net after Howard had followed him all the way.

After the game, Panthers coach Peter Horachek described Bjugstad’s play as a “world-class goal” and called Barkov “pretty slick.”

So what’s the verdict? More importantly, does it really matter?

What’s important is that the Panthers got two big plays from their two big building blocks.

We’ve heard on more than one occasion Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon talk about how he wants to build a team with size and skill down the middle, and the Panthers sure look like they’ve got two keepers in Bjugstad and Barkov.

When you look back at what they did Tuesday night, just remember that both are rookies, that Bjugstad is only 21 years old and Barkov just happens to be the youngest player in the NHL, having just turned 18 back in September.

Think about that last one for a second. Barkov is 18 years old. For those who have watched the Panthers all season, has he once looked out of place on the ice? Like he didn’t belong?

The answer is a resounding no. In fact, he’s already one of the most well-rounded forwards on the Panthers roster. He’s strong on the puck, responsible defensively and shows tremendous vision on the ice.

Sure, his offensive numbers aren’t overwhelming and if there’s one area where he could improve it’s becoming more assertive offensively instead of almost always looking for the pass, but it’s not like he doesn’t have the skills to get that done. His shootout ability — just go back and watch some of his Finland highlights if last night’s goal wasn’t enough — is great evidence of that.

And again, he’s 18 years old.

Bjugstad, meanwhile, just has that tremendous combination of size and skill, the kind of physical attributes that just can’t be taught. The beautiful thing about it for the Panthers is that Bjugstad is using his size to his advantage more and more as the weeks go by.

Bjugstad didn’t just have that spectacular goal against Detroit, he had several other scoring chances as he led all Panthers players with five shots on goal.

Again, he’s only 21 years old.

Like Barkov, there’s no reason to think he won’t do anything but get better.

The play of Barkov and Bjugstad early in the 2013-14 season without question has to rank as the most positive development for the Panthers.

Now, back to the original question. OK, we’ll go with the Bjugstad goal because of the way he got past Datsyuk. On second thought, let’s go with the Barkov shootout move because of how silly he made Howard look.

Ah, never mind, let’s call it a tie.

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