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Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov is best buds with Patrik Laine. Not tonight

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Patrik Laine, left, and Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov are courtside for a Miami Heat game at AmericanAirlines Arena during the 2019-20 All-Star break. // Photo courtesy @BarkovSasha Instagram

SUNRISE — Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov has been good friends with Patrik Laine for a long time now.

Although three years apart in age, the two NHL stars both grew up in Tampere, Finland, and played — at separate times — for Tappara, a club Barkov now has an ownership stake in.

The two ended up becoming friends over the years after playing together on Finland’s World Championship team in 2016.

Now, they are tennis buddies and offseason workout partners.

The two go to Miami Heat games when Laine comes to visit and they co-host a charity golf tournament in Finland which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Tampere Association for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities.

They were also the focal point of the NHL Global Series matchup between the Panthers and Winnipeg Jets in Helsinki four years ago.

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Thursday, for the third time this season, the two square off as Barkov’s Panthers take on Laine and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

There have been pleasantries and shared dinners.

But when they line up to play?

That is where their friendship ends.

At least temporarily.

“He wants to be the best, he wants to score goals every game and that’s what you’re seeing from him right now,” Barkov said Wednesday afternoon following the Panthers’ workout at FLA Live Arena.

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“It was tough for him, changing teams and stuff but I am really happy for him. But (Thursday), there are no friends on the ice. It is no secret: We talk all of the time, we are really good friends. On the ice we are never thinking about that. We are never friends on the ice.

“We can talk before and after the game, but never on the ice. We concentrate on the game. He has been hot lately. We have to realize that and take him away.”

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Patrik Laine and Sasha Barkov pose at their charity golf tournament in 2020. // Photo courtesy @LaineBarkovCharityGolf

The pair have done a lot of damage on the ice and have now faced each other a number of times — Barkov always with the Panthers and Laine first with Winnipeg and now with the Blue Jackets.

In 15 games against the Panthers, Laine has gotten his share of scoring in.

He had four goals in the two Helsinki games, recording a hat trick in Winnipeg’s 4-2 win and scoring again in Florida’s 4-2 win.

While with the Jets, Laine was 5-2 against the Panthers with seven goals and 15 points.

Barkov had three goals and five points in six games against Laine and the Jets, losing four.

Since moving to Columbus early in the 2021 season, Laine has just three goals and four points in eight losses to the Panthers.

Barkov, meanwhile, has four goals and seven points in those eight victories.

Last year was a tough one on Laine after the blockbuster deal to Columbus — one in which both he and then-Blue Jackets center Pierre-Luc Dubois wanted out of their respective situations.

Up until lately, there has been plenty of questions whether he and the Blue Jackets were a proper fit.

After averaging 32 goals in his first four seasons with the Jets, Laine had 10 in 45 games with the Jackets last year.

This season got off to a slow start as well as he scored six goals with 15 points in his first 21 games.

Boy, have things picked up.

Since Jan. 27 against the Rangers, Laine has hit the scoresheet in his past 10 games.

Laine has scored 12 goals with 20 points in those 10 games, getting a hat trick against Chicago and scoring at least two goals in five of them.

The Blue Jackets have won eight of those 10. One of the losses, of course, was the 8-4 defeat at the hands of Barkov and the Panthers.

Columbus has been outscored 17-6 in two losses to the Panthers last month so that is still fresh in their minds.

“He always has said he likes it there, likes the city and likes the team,” Barkov said. “It was just a matter of time before he started scoring. He has been playing well and working hard. Now he is scoring goals. I am happy for him, but hopefully not tomorrow.”

Stopping Laine is not easy when he is on a heater like this.

One of the elite shooters in the NHL, Laine can seemingly score from anywhere at any time.

The Panthers have kept him check for the most part since he arrived in Columbus, but he did get two against them the last time out.

As Barkov notes, Florida will be keeping an eye on him whenever he jumps on the ice.

Sometimes that matters and sometimes it simply does not.

“You have to have awareness when he’s on — and he is on right now” coach Andrew Brunette said. “You have to know where he is because he is such a lethal player in certain areas. Just be in his face. He has some mojo right now. When he’s feeling good and you allow him some time and space, he can beat you pretty easily. We have to be aware.”

Added defenseman Gus Forsling: “He is really good and can shoot it from anywhere. You really have to be close to a guy like that. It is easy to say ‘stay close to him’ but he is making plays out there. You just try to shut him down as quickly as possible.”

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