Barkov becomes 1st Finland-born NHL captain to win Stanley Cup

Across two months, Barkov made the No. 1 (Kucherov), No. 3 (McDavid), No. 4 (Panarin), No. 5 (Pastrnak) and No. 7 (Draisaitl) scorers in the League look pedestrian.

Along the way, people realized what his teammates always knew.

During Game 1 of the Final, Wayne Gretzky, the game’s best-ever scorer, compared Barkov to Bryan Trottier of the New York Islanders. Trottier was the defensive heartbeat of the Islanders dynasty, and the first time Gretzky played him in the Final, he was frustrated and limited.

Now, it’s Barkov that has that mantle, Gretzky said.

“He’s just phenomenal,” said Florida forward Kyle Okposo. “I don’t have the physical gifts to do what he does, but just the way that he thinks about the game, you don’t see many players that have that, that are so talented offensively as well.

“That’s not something that a lot of special offensive players have in their game. That’s why I admire him so much. He was so suffocating as an opponent.”

Fourth-line forward Kevin Stenlund, who is valued for his defensive acumen, says he has never seen a player quite like Barkov.

“He has been unbelievable all season,” he said. “He’s been our best player all season and he was tonight. It is amazing to see.”

Anton Lundell is 22. He grew up in Finland emulating the game of Barkov, who is six years older. Some around the Panthers call Lundell “Baby Barkov.”

Lundell says as big as Barkov is becoming here, he remains bigger in Finland.

He is a national hero in that hockey-mad country. Young players watch him and try to emulate him, as difficult as that is.

“I mean, everybody who grows up playing hockey in Finland, they look up to guys here,” Lundell said. “Sasha’s one guy we all want to be one day. You grow up watching his highlights. You go to practice, you know, and want to do [things] the same way he does them. We all have idols, but I have to say, I think he’s the biggest idol in Finland.”

Just as importantly, Barkov is a great guy, the glue that holds the team together. He has been that since he arrived during the 2013-14 season.

He remained that way through several lean years with the Panthers when there wasn’t much to celebrate. He makes sure that everyone is involved. He can be funny when he needs to be, although it is understated in that Finnish way, and he leads by example.

Forward Matthew Tkachuk arrived here last season in a blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames. He is brash. He can score goals. He can dominate a room. He can lead men. He drags those around him into the fight.

But he understood immediately that the Panthers were Barkov’s team. They belonged to the quiet, earnest, determined man who took his job seriously, maybe too seriously at times.

The Panthers are a reflection of their captain, Tkachuk realized almost immediately.

“Best teammate I’ve ever had,” Tkachuk said Monday. “Best player. Best leader. So thankful that I’m able to ride shotgun with him on occasion. He’s the real deal and I’m so happy for him. He’s been here for a long time, through the ups and downs, and he deserves this as much as anybody.

“We’re going to party hard tonight.”

Party like champions, which was the one title that is no longer absent from Barkov’s impressive resume.

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