FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Aleksander Barkov thinks back to the disappointment the Florida Panthers had after losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final last season and sometimes feels like, "it was a just a few days ago." 

It's been a motivating force for Barkov and the Panthers since that series ended and remains one as they prepare to face the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden in New York on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC).

"Sometimes when you go all the way to the finals and you're this close and you don't win it, you're just like, 'you're never going to win it,'" Barkov told on Monday. "I think after it happened to us last year, every single guy in the room, we just knew we needed to work a little harder and everyone did. Everyone came to camp better than ever before and it just carried into the season. 

"We knew that we can do it, we're close, and everyone got better. And here we are again, we are really close."

Florida is bidding to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup the season after losing in the Cup Final since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. No Stanley Cup runner-up has even made it back to the Cup Final since those 2009 Penguins.

The Panthers aren't there, yet. They'll face a difficult test against the Rangers, the Presidents' Trophy winners who led the NHL with 114 points during the regular season. 

But the Panthers, who finished first in the Atlantic Division with 110 points, have been on a mission they couldn't complete last season when, battered by injuries, they lost to the Golden Knights in five games. And Barkov, the Panthers unflappable captain and No. 1 center, has been their unquestioned leader on that mission.

"Every time we need a big play or a big goal, he comes through," Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe said.

That was certainly the case in the Eastern Conference Second Round when Barkov's tour-de-force performance powered the Panthers past the Boston Bruins in six games. The 28-year-old led Florida with eight points (three goals, five assists) in the series, including the winning goals in Games 2 and 4. 

Barkov capped the series with a goal-saving block on David Pastrnak's power-play one-timer late in the third period of the Panthers' series-clinching 2-1 win in Game 6 on Friday, prompting teammate Matthew Tkachuk to declare postgame, "He's playing the best hockey in the world right now. He's the best player in the world right now." 

The following day, Barkov was named the winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL top defensive forward for the second time in his 11 seasons in the NHL.

"That Game 6 that he played was incredibly impressive, more so when I went back and watched it on video," Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. "It was really well done."

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Barkov, who trails Tkachuk by one point for the Panthers' lead with 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in 11 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, said his dedication to playing as well in the defensive zone as in the offensive zone, is partly due to "the Finnish way" he learned growing up in Tampere. But it's also something that comes naturally to him.

He's not sure, though, if it came from his father, Alexander Barkov Sr., a skilled forward who played for the Russia national team and with Tappara of Liiga, the top professional league in Finland before going into coaching.

"I know he was offensively really talented, but I just always wanted to be both ways," Barkov said. "Ever since I was a young kid, I just felt like I need to be responsible at everything."

Barkov also has always had an innate need to work at what he wasn't as good at to become a more complete player. Former Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski noticed it during Barkov's rookie season. After Florida selected Barkov with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, he had 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in 54 games as an 18-year-old in 2013-14.

"He was one of those guys who was in the ice early, on late working on his craft, working on his hands, working on face-offs," said Jovanovksi, now a studio analyst for Panthers telecasts on Bally Sports Florida. "At a young age, you don't usually see these guys working with the coaches after, getting extra reps on face-off work. But where he has come as a player, it's so important on what his role is."

Barkov has never stopped working. After the Panthers lost in the Cup Final, he asked himself what he could do better to help them win. When he returned for training camp in September, he was leaner -- and faster.

"I knew if I could be a little lighter, I can move a little better," Barkov said. "For sure, the game is really fast right now. You can't be too heavy."

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Barkov, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, said no one from the Panthers suggested he lose weight. He concluded it himself from, "just the feeling, the experience."

Even if the impact wasn't tangible in Barkov's point production during the regular season -- he had 80 points (23 goals, 57 assists) in 73 games after he had 78 points (23 goals, 55 assists) in 68 last season -- Maurice said he has been driving play at a different level with his speed and physicality.

"What's great about Barkov is that he didn't settle on a game," Maurice said. "He didn't decide at 26, 'This is who I am as a player and there's no need to really add anything. I don't need to really improve anything.' He's constant. Improvement isn't just, 'These five things that I'm good at, I get better at.' The great improvement is, 'These five things are my core. I'm good at that, and I can add these, too. Then I become a different player, a more well-rounded player.'"

Barkov's unrelenting desire to improve sets an example that is among the reasons why Maurice called him, "the perfect man to be captain of the Florida Panthers." Forward Kyle Okposo, who was traded to the Panthers by the Buffalo Sabres on March 8, remembers playing against Barkov and concluding that he must work hard because of how strong he was on the puck.

Watching Barkov up close in practices and games the past two months-plus has given Okposo an even greater appreciation of that, and his leadership style.

"Everything that he does on a day-to-day basis is why it's so difficult to play against him and why he's so prepared mentally," said Okposo, a veteran of 17 NHL seasons and former captain with Buffalo. "That level of preparation is something that I don't see very often, and I haven't seen very often in my career, and everybody here has no choice but to follow that example.

"There's no excuses to be tired for a day and to not do what is required of you that day because he's setting the example to go above and beyond what's expected of him because he wants to be the best every single day."

Although Barkov can be soft-spoken, Okposo said his voice as captain carries weight, "whether he says a thousand words a day or 10." At the head of a Panthers' leadership group that includes a wide array of personalities from the more vocal and brash Tkachuk to the measured maturity of Aaron Ekblad, Barkov has learned during his six seasons as captain when to speak up and when to let his play do the talking.

"What he's done this year is he sensed what our team needed in games," Maurice said. "And that's kind of that vision of a leader: 'What's wrong? What do we need? How do I make this better?' And not just, 'I go out and play my game.' (It's) 'I go out and play the game I'm capable of playing. I play the game needs me to play.'"

Barkov views leadership as a group effort.

"I think everyone in this room, we have the same goal, we have the same mindset," he said. "So, it doesn't matter how you lead. Somebody is more vocal than others. Somebody is more serious than others. Somebody might be kind of cracking jokes and that kind of stuff. So, everyone leads a different way. I don't think there's one or two. It's everyone.

"We're all in this together and just working towards our ultimate goal."

The Panthers are closer to that goal now, but have work left to do, with the Rangers being their next obstacle. Unwavering in his quest to bring Florida its first Cup championship, Barkov isn't about to let up now.

"We're close, but we take it a day at a time," he said. "We don't think too much ahead. It's a day at a time and we're ready for the next challenge."

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