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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Sasha Barkov Dominant as Florida Panthers Eliminate Lightning

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Florida Panthers captain Sasha Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk congratulate Carter Verhaeghe after a third period goal in Game 5 against the Lightning on Monday night. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE — When Sasha Barkov put the Florida Panthers up two midway through the third period of a close out Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he let out a rare sign of emotion.

Usually, the even-keeled captain shrugs off his goals and joins his teammates for a quick hug before moving on.

He seemed to enjoy his big goal on Monday night.

After jamming home his second goal of the night with 8:54 to go, Barkov dropped to one knee and let out an emphatic fist pump after finally breaking through against his team’s bitter cross-state rival.

“I don’t know what to say there,” Barkov said. “It doesn’t happen too often but it definitely felt great. That’s all I can say about that moment.”

In truth, that moment did mean a bit more to Barkov.

The last time his Panthers played the Lightning in the playoffs, he was held to one assist; Tampa Bay swept Florida out of the second round of the 2022 playoffs.

That series was the catalyst for big changes in the offseason, which saw Barkov’s longtime friends Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar get shipped off to the Calgary Flames for Matthew Tkachuk.

Two years later, he was the player who showed up and slayed the dragon in Florida’s rollicking 6-1 win in a decisive Game 5.

“It was great to get over the hump and we all remember what happened [in 2021 and 2022],” Barkov said. “At some point, we were going to have to see them again and you got to get over the hump. And we did it this year and it obviously feels great right now.”

Barkov scored two goals and one assist — all on Florida’s first three goals — and played key minutes on a penalty kill which went 4-for-4 against the NHL’s best regular-season power play.

“He was so dominant,” Tkachuk said. “It was like a man playing against boys out there.’’

After back-to-back years of early exits to the Lightning and the heartbreak of losing the Stanley Cup Final, Barkov worked hard to lose weight and play a faster, harder game.

His performance on Monday night was a direct result of it.

On both of his two goals in Game 5, Barkov crashed the net and cleaned up a rebound to get the job done.

“I think Sasha prepared for this already from the summer of last year,” coach Paul Maurice said. “He came back to training camp faster, stronger, he is hitting more than he ever has. He’s kind of built himself for the playoff game. He doesn’t really play a puck game, but he can but he is going to the net on the shorthanded goal, he’s driving.

“Now he’s able to lead other players because it’s difficult to be an example to people who can’t do what you can do, the hard things he does in the game. But we can all compete shift by shift, so he’s become a real fine leader for this team because he’s become more like everybody else, and saying that, he’s not like anybody else.”

His teammates recognize the hard work he put in, but also want to play the game the same way Barkov does.

At least try to.

When the Panthers shifted to a more defensively-focused system under Maurice in 2022-23, everyone wanted to be more like Barkov.

As one of the NHL’s best defensively-minded forwards, that system was practically made in his image.

And in a close-out game, he came in there and dominated on both ends of the ice to take down the Panthers’ most bitter rival.

“Barky is our leader,” Carter Verhaeghe said. “He leads the way out there and we all follow him. He has been unbelievable all year and it’s no different here in the playoffs. He comes up big at big games with big goals and he does everything right every game and I think a lot of guys on our team are trying to emulate him and be like him.”

For the most in-depth coverage of the Florida Panthers:

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1) V. BOSTON (A2)/TORONTO (A3)
*Boston Leads Toronto 3-2 in Round 1
BEST-OF-7 SERIES
GAME 1

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