Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov showing Selke merit, if not more: ‘Best player in the world right now’

BOSTON — As if we needed another example of how brilliant of a defensive forward Aleksander Barkov is, the Florida Panthers captain made the biggest defensive play in the biggest moment of the Panthers’ season so far Friday night.

With less than three minutes left in a 1-1 game, Barkov read perfectly and robbed David Pastrnak of what looked like a certain power-play goal with a well-timed, gutsy blocked shot that briefly sent him to the dressing room.

When Barkov returned to the bench 84 seconds later, he got to witness Gustav Forsling’s series-clinching winner and be part of the celebration and ensuing handshake line as the Panthers, courtesy of a 2-1 victory, dispatched the Boston Bruins for the second straight postseason and advanced to the Eastern Conference final for the second straight season.

This is why Barkov will likely win his second career Selke Trophy on Saturday.

“I don’t really even have words for what he’s doing for our team right now,” teammate Matthew Tkachuk said. “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.

“Saved the goal, saved the game. Now we’re on to the Big Apple.”

The Panthers advance to play the star-studded New York Rangers, who had the best record in the NHL during the regular season, starting Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

This series was a grind for the Panthers. Friday night, the teams combined to block 46 shots and dish out 79 hits. Goalies Jeremy Swayman and Sergei Bobrovsky put forth a terrific goalie duel until Forsling, more known for his defense, followed Anton Lundell up the ice and buried his rebound.

Lundell, whom some have dubbed “Baby Barkov,” also scored the tying goal in the second period.

“Our whole team was just waiting for that moment,” Lundell said. “You know, one goal that is going to bring us more energy and be confident again. We believed and we kept going and never quit.”

This postseason has almost been a coming of age for Forsling and Lundell, who has nine points in 11 playoff games. The Panthers and their fans know how special they are, and now hockey fans everywhere are learning the same thing.

Forsling, who led the NHL with a plus-56 rating this season, is smooth everywhere. He can skate, he’s got a great stick, and his gaps are second to none. And he can chip in offensively. He does a lot of things that aren’t easily measured, coach Paul Maurice said.



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“There’s different styles of defensemen, but in his style, he’s the best in the world,” Maurice said.

And as for the Lundell, whom Barkov has been gushing about all playoffs, Maurice said, “He’s playing a different game now than I’ve ever seen him play.”

Forsling and Lundell don’t yearn for attention, although Barkov joked after the game that Lundell’s getting “too proud of himself” because of all the accolades lately. And Forsling made clear even though folks are starting to discover how good he is, he knows why he earned that eight-year contract extension in March. There’s a reason that between games 2 and 5 the Panthers outattempted the Bruins 50-14 at even strength when he was on the ice.

“I’m not usually the guy who scores the game-winning goal,” he said. “I’m trying to defend out there most of the time. It’s fun to score always, help your team win, but I’ll stick to defense.”

On a day when there might have been a little gamesmanship over at the Panthers’ hotel when the fire alarm was yanked by somebody conveniently right in the middle of the team’s afternoon nap around 2 o’clock, the Panthers did a solid job against the hard-working Bruins by controlling the puck most of the game. It was almost surprising because the two days off had to benefit the Bruins’ re-energizing their legs after playing every other day since their seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But at one point before Pavel Zacha’s first career playoff goal gave Boston a 1-0 lead, the Bruins were held without a shot for 14 minutes.

The Panthers had to grind and get comfortable in this type of game, and it led to a revolving door of players going to the dressing room like Eetu Luostarinen, Niko Mikkola and ultimately Barkov after that incredible block.

“You want to talk about the highs and lows of emotions on the bench,” Maurice said. “Like that’s a gaping net and a legitimate block. And then, ‘Oh, my God, did he break something?’”

Barkov, who was seen going to the X-ray room after the game, said he was OK. Asked about the block, Barkov, as usual, deflected the praise by saying, “Our guys sacrifice.”

Teammates were quicker to heap praise upon their leader.

“He saved the game there, to be honest,” Forsling said. “He made a great read. Just another amazing play by him. He seems to do it every game.”

Added 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.”

The Panthers, after winning their sixth consecutive playoff game at a raucous TD Garden, head to Madison Square Garden full of confidence. Maurice didn’t even want to think about the Rangers yet. He wanted to enjoy this one.

But he did say, “I think that we’re a much better team than we were last year when we came in here (to Boston) — on personnel and on experience. I also think that the Boston Bruins played really hard. This was an amazing series from behind the bench. It was dirty … on both sides. It was heavy, it was clean. It was brilliantly skilled at times. It was a grind except both goalies were phenomenal.”

Lundell also said the Panthers have gained a lot of confidence from last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final and this is a much better team than last year. Tkachuk agreed.

“We’re clicking right now and we’re clicking on and off the ice,” he said. “We’re having so much fun. That’s the most important part. We’re just looking forward to racing out of here, going to the hotel lounge, play some poker, have some laughs, watch some hockey (and fly back to Florida on Saturday). That’s literally the best part of all this, other than the winning.

“I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such great guys. We just have so much fun.”

The Panthers know they have quite the challenge ahead, too, against the Presidents’ Trophy winners, with Igor Shesterkin in net, lots of star power and the best combined special teams in the playoffs.

“It’s playoff hockey in New York. It’s a dream,” Tkachuk said. “I mean, MSG, on the road, is my favorite rink to play in just because the history and everything that has to do with the city of New York. It’s a great city. They love their sports. It’s going to be such a great atmosphere.

“I mean, to play a conference finals at MSG, that’s just so cool. We’re excited to start that on Wednesday. Just hopefully the hotel doesn’t pull the fire alarm on us.”

(Photo: Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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