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Sasha Barkov and the Florida Panthers prepare for their Return to Play



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Although many of the Florida Panthers have returned to the IceDen in Coral Springs to prepare for the restart to their season, captain Sasha Barkov never really left.

Upon the NHL putting its season on ice on March 12, Barkov flew home to Fort Lauderdale with his teammates — and stayed put.

When the Panthers initially opened up the IceDen, Barkov was one of the first ones to hit the ice.

Barkov says he cannot wait to get this season rolling again even if it means going back into a sort of quarantine.

Sasha Barkov explained his teammates understand once they head off to their hub city the focus, by design and for their protection, is going to be on hockey.

“For me, I don’t really need to go anywhere,” Barkov said of the strict rules which will be put in place once the NHL’s Return to Play enters Phase 4.

“I think our guys are all the same way. We talk a lot of group chat and I know most of the guys cannot wait. We know the situation we’re in and we’re going to handle it really well and try and stay as safe as we can. That means not going anywhere.

“For me, the Stanley Cup playoffs is everything. I would not leave my bed but just go to games and practices for the chance to play in the playoffs and try and win the Stanley Cup. This is what we live for.

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“We want to win and we will do everything we can. The guys are in good shape and everyone has the mindset that we’re going to try and win the Stanley Cup.”

Rematch with the Islanders

If all goes according to plan, the Panthers will face the New York Islanders in a best-of-5 qualifier series in the coming weeks.

Florida is winless in three games against the Islanders this season with all of those games completed by December.

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Each of the three games were close, with Florida losing 3-2 in aa shootout on Long Island, a 2-1 in Brooklyn and 3-1 (the third goal was into an empty net with three seconds remaining) in Sunrise.

Going into the break, however, New York had lost seven consecutive games and 11 of 13.

The Islanders head into the qualifying round as the No. 7 seed in the East; Florida is No. 10.

“We’re excited,” said Barkov, one of four members of the Panthers still around from the 2016 opening-round series loss to New York.

“That’s the really big thing. We’re all excited to get back to work and do it for a couple weeks and then get back to playing and try to make a deep run.”

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Sasha Barkov said he thinks the Panthers can quickly return to the form they were at when the season was put on ice.

When the NHL shut things down on March 12, Florida had gone 2-0-1 in its past three games with victories over Montreal and St. Louis with an overtime loss to Boston.

“Of course, it has been (four) months since we have played but at the break, we were playing the way we had wanted to the whole season,” Barkov said.

“We started looking good, were playing really good hockey and were playing for each other, battling for each other. Everyone was doing the right things on the ice. We need to use training camp to get back to those basics and we have lots of time to talk about how to play the right way.

“It’s good to know we’re playing the Islanders. Everything is going (to) prepare us because we know they’re a good team and we have to play really well to beat them.”

For the Panthers, getting back to speed early on is of the upmost importance.

Barkov is not the only Florida player to mention how they all know they cannot afford to come out of this break as they did following its 10-day All-Star vacation.

The Panthers ended up winning five of 16 in February coming out of that time off — easily the worst stretch of the season and one of the worst runs in franchise history as the team went winless in eight home games.

Florida had won six consecutive games before leaving Chicago for the midseason vacation and just weren’t right for a long time.

By the time the Panthers won in St. Louis on March 9, they had pulled to within a point of a playoff spot. On March 12, where the standings remain frozen, Florida was three points out of a playoff spot with 13 games left.

“We’re going to have to look back on how we came out of the All-Star break and learn from that,’’ general manager Dale Tallon said. “We have to be ready to play right from the beginning.

“Our players, our coaches know that. This is a whole new deal we’re working on and some teams are going to react to it the right way and some will not.”

Said Barkov: “We were close to being in a playoff spot with a lot of games left and we were finally playing as good as we did before the first break. We were feeling pretty good, pretty confident and this (Covid-19 break) sucks, but, safety first. I think the league made the right decision, we needed to keep people inside.”

George Richards is editor-in-chief of Florida Hockey Now. Richards spent close to 30 years at The Miami Herald and has covered the Florida Panthers since 2004.

Richards covered the Blue Jackets for The Columbus Dispatch during the 2017-18 season but returned home to resume covering the Panthers for The Athletic in 2018. Richards was born in Miami, started at The Herald while a senior at Cooper City High School and currently lives in Plantation — about a 10-minute drive from the BB&T Center.

Twitter: @GeorgeRichards

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