Panthers’ Barkov, playing ‘best hockey in the world,’ showed off Selke-worthy skills vs Bruins

It’s easy to see why Aleksander Barkov, the Florida Panthers’ quiet but respected captain, was the runaway winner this season for the Selke Trophy, given annually to the NHL’s best defensive forward. Over his 11-year NHL career, one in which he has set basically every notable Panthers franchise record, Barkov has evolved into one of the NHL’s best two-way forwards and still keeps finding new ways to amaze on the ice.

But if one needed a pair of snapshots to encapsulate Barkov’s prowess on both ends of the ice, look no further than two crucial plays in the Panthers’ second-round Stanley Cup playoffs series against the Boston Bruins.

The first won Game 4 of the best-of-7 series for the Panthers. With the game tied early in the third period, Barkov received a drop pass from Kyle Okposo as he entered the offensive zone. He weaved his way around three Bruins defenders on his drive to the net before firing a shot over Boston goaltender Jeremy Swayman’s shoulder for the go-ahead goal in the 3-2 win.

The second saved the Panthers in Game 6. With the game tied and Boston on the power play in the waning minutes of regulation, David Pastrnak fired a slap shot from the left circle with Sergei Bobrovsky out of position and the net nearly wide open. Barkov dropped to one knee, got in front of the shot and made arguably the block of the game.

Florida’s Gustav Forsling went on to score the game-winning — and series-clinching — goal about a minute-and-a-half later.

“I don’t really even have words for what he’s doing for our team right now,” star winger Matthew Tkachuk said of Barkov. “He’s playing the best hockey in the world right now. He’s the best player in the world right now, both ends of the ice. He’s been unbelievable. That shot block just shows you, too. He’s scored all the goals. He’s made the great plays this series. He had the puck the whole series, but I think that shot block shows the completion of this game.”

That complete game was recognized Saturday when Barkov won the Selke Trophy, as voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, for the second time in the past four years. Barkov received 165 of 194 first-place votes and was on all but two ballots.

“This season Sasha once again demonstrated his unique ability to dominate the 200-foot game, and this award is deserved recognition of not only his talent and effort but also his selfless devotion to his team,” Panthers president of hockey operations and general manager Bill Zito said in a press release. “His commitment to training and preparation are second to none in this league. We all follow Sasha’s lead and are proud to have him as our captain.

Barkov’s all-around effort has been paramount for the Panthers as they advance to the Eastern Conference final for a second consecutive season. Florida’s series against the New York Rangers for a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

Through 11 postseason games, Barkov has five goals and 13 points. Three of those five goals are game-winners. But just as key has been his work on the other end of the ice — the 29 hits, 10 blocked shots, 18 takeaways and stellar work on the penalty kill, with the Panthers scoring as many goals as they’ve given up (two) in nearly 25 minutes Barkov has been on the ice with the team shorthanded.

“He’s kind of built himself now for the playoff game,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He really doesn’t play a puck game, but he can. He’s going to the net on the short-handed goal. He’s driving, so now he’s able to lead other players. It’s difficult to be an example to people who can’t do what you can do, but the hard things that he does in the game, we can all do it. We can all compete shift on and shift out.

“He’s become a real fine leader for this team,” Maurice added, “because he’s become more like everybody else ... and then in saying that he’s not like everybody else.”

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) skates after he’s honored as the first star of the game after their 6-1 win over the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the second-round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amerant Bank Arena on Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) skates after he’s honored as the first star of the game after their 6-1 win over the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the second-round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amerant Bank Arena on Wednesday, May 8, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.

It’s a continuation of Barkov’s stellar two-way play from the regular season. In 73 regular-season games, Barkov put up 80 points (23 goals, 57 assists). He led all Panthers forwards with a plus-33 rating and had a career-high 57.3 faceoff win percentage. He ranked second on the team in assists (57), third in points (80) and power-play points (29), and fourth in goals (23).

Meanwhile, he led all NHL skaters who skated in at least 70 games this season in on-ice goals for percentage at five-on-five play (69.7 percent), with Florida outscoring opponents 53-23 when Barkov was on the ice in full-strength situations.

“He plays very loud,” said veteran center Kyle Okposo, who has played against Barkov over the past decade before joining the Panthers at the trade deadline. “Whenever he’s on the ice you notice him, and your opponent notices him. He’s a really tough guy to play against. He sets just such a good example of what to do out there, as well as how to act, how to treat people. He’s just a phenomenal person. He’s a fantastic captain for our group.”

That skill and dedication to his craft is not lost on those around him. Just ask his teammates.

Forward Carter Verhaeghe: “Barky’s our leader. He leads the way up there and we all follow him. He’s been unbelievable all year. It’s no different here in the playoffs. He comes up big. Big goals. He does everything right every game. A lot of guys on our team try and emulate and try to be like him.”

“I think every every day, he comes up with a new play that kind of surprising to me. He works so hard at his craft. He’s here all day working and in the gym trying to get better. His work ethic is second to none, so anything he does out there doesn’t really surprise me but still leaves me in awe.”

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky: “He does lots of things that most of the people don’t see. He’s a pro. He’s an elite, elite player, not only offensively but defensively and how he reads the game. He probably has the highest IQ in hockey.”

Forward Steven Lorentz: “He’s just that quality of a person. As good of a hockey player as he is, he’s just as good of a person — very quiet, very humble. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, everybody listens. He’s one of those guys. He’s a really funny guy. He’s got a really witty dry humor, but he’s very intelligent. Obviously, English isn’t his first language, but he gets all the jokes and stuff and just little comments. He just makes your day a lot better. Everybody knows what he can do on the, ice but it’s been really special getting to know him as a person.”

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