SUNRISE — For the first time in his 10-year NHL career, Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov will finally get the chance to showcase his talents on the league’s biggest stage: The Stanley Cup Final.
The 27-year-old superstar is now the first Finnish captain in NHL history to play in a Stanley Cup Final after reaching the second round of the playoffs just once in his prior nine seasons with the Panthers.
Prior to last season, Barkov was never able to get past the first round.
Through multiple seasons of futility and near-misses, seven head coaching changes and some playoff heartbreak sprinkled in between, Barkov developed into one of the NHL’s premier two-way forwards mostly in the shadows.
Now he has the rest of the league’s attention.
“You have a TV, so you’ve seen from a distance all of the things he can do,” coach Paul Maurice said.
“The size, really fine hands, the ability to make plays. He is just a very powerful man whether it’s an explosion into holes, a puck that gets off his stick hard and we’ve also seen some pretty nice physicality in the playoffs this year.”
Barkov has gotten recognition for his elite play as the Panthers improved in recent years — winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward in 2021 — but it has not been fully appreciated until this playoff run.
For a while, he has been tagged as the “most underrated player in the league,” as he was named by his peers in the NHLPA’s player poll this season, but the Panthers locker room is already over that notion.
“I’ve been past that years ago, to be honest,” Anthony Duclair said. “I think he’s up there, I think everybody knows he’s up there. It’s more around the league, but for us, we know he’s been a top player for a bunch of years.
“He just does everything right,” Duclair continued.
“He is a guy that wins all of his battles, his stick is unbelievable, and his shot speed and his speed is kind of underrated, to be honest. He has a complete 200-foot game and he is always making sure he is on the right side of the puck and does the little things you appreciate when you are playing with him.”
Barkov has never cared for the outside spotlight, though.
The typical postgame press conference for the captain features praise for his teammates, some quotes about doing anything to help the team win and the occasional witty one-liner.
“I have never met a personality like that at that level of a player,” Maurice said.
“The humility is real. When you talk to the guy, he’s just a humble guy, that never changes. He’s possibly uncomfortable with the idea that he’s talked about more than just the other players in the room. He would think that there are 13 forwards every bit as important to this team as he is and he believes it, and that’s the way he treats everybody.”
While he isn’t the loudest voice in the room, Barkov is focused on leading by example, and the team has been following his lead seemingly since he walked in the door in 2013.
“It’s not just me leading, [Matthew Tkachuk] leading, it’s everyone,” Barkov said.
“[Sergei Bobrovsky,] the Staal brothers, those guys are leaders as well. With them, it’s so much easier and so much more fun to play and to come to the rink every day.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
OR DALLAS STARS
- When: TBA
- Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas OR AmericanAirlines Center, Dallas
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — TBA
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series Vs. Vegas (Even 1-1): @Vegas 4, Florida 2 (Jan. 12); @Florida 2, Vegas 1 (March 7)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Vegas Golden Knights lead 6-3-1
- 2022-23 Regular Season Series vs. Dallas (Stars Won 2-0):Dallas 6, @Florida 4 (Nov. 17); @Dallas 5, Florida 1 (Jan. 8)
- All-time Regular Season Series: vs. Dallas Florida leads 24-21-2, 3 ties
- Postseason History: First meeting vs. both Vegas or Dallas