Aleksander Barkov Game 3 Stanley Cup Final 61324

EDMONTON -- There are times when the superlatives seem to be excessive, fawning and saccharine, out of step with reality. And then there are the words used to describe Aleksander Barkov, the kind of player he is, the work ethic he demonstrates, the leader he has become.

They hardly seem enough, at all.

Not after a 4-3 win for the Florida Panthers over the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place on Thursday that put them up 3-0 in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final, with a chance to close out the series -- and win the Cup -- on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; CBC, TVAS, SN, ESPN+, ABC).

“Close your ears,” forward Sam Bennett said, as he prepared to talk about Barkov, who sat next to him on the postgame podium and reddened.

“He’s our leader,” Bennett said. “He’s our captain and he plays the game the right way. It’s pretty special to see a guy so committed -- as gifted as he is offensively, he’s so committed to playing defense and shutting guys down, blocking shots.

“When you have your all-star captain playing that way, it carries on to every single guy in the locker room. He means a lot to this team, to say the least.”

Which was why it was so potentially crushing when Barkov didn’t finish the last 9:28 of Game 2, after a high hit from Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl left him clearly in pain. It dulled the joy of the Panthers’ second straight win over the Oilers, and increased the anxiety as the Panthers headed out to Edmonton for the resumption of the series.

By Thursday morning, it was clear. He would play.

By Thursday night, it was clear. He would play.

Asked about the hit, Barkov shrugged it off. That was last game, he said. This is tonight.

“I felt good,” Barkov said. “I’m happy to be back. That’s pretty much all I can say.”

His teammates said the rest for him.

“You never want to be without your captain,” forward Evan Rodrigues said. “Obviously really nice to have him."

It was an understatement.

Barkov broke his tie with forward Matthew Tkachuk as the team leader in playoff scoring in Game 3, with a goal and an assist, including the game-winner. He has 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists), one more than Tkachuk, and four game-winners in 20 games in the playoffs.

“He’s so dominant on both sides of the puck,” defenseman Brandon Montour said. “Makes it hard -- as good as he is offense, he shows defensively and makes those big, big-time blocks. His stick is so long, it’s so tough to get around him.

“He’s a big, big, big, big part of what we’re doing here. Happy the whole hockey world can see that.”

As Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard took a pass just inside the offensive blue line in the first period, Barkov leaned his stick in the way, knocking the puck loose. He caught up to it along the boards, outdueling Bouchard as he waited for his teammates to catch up.

Once defenseman Gustav Forsling had crossed the blue line, Barkov sent a pass over to him, after which Forsling sent a beauty of a shot-pass that forward Sam Reinhart deflected past goalie Stuart Skinner at 18:58.

It was vintage Barkov.

“Starts in his own zone, wins the puck battle in his own zone … doesn’t try to make a skilled play, just takes it up the wall, fends him off, turns up, finds a late guy and ends up in the back of the net,” Rodrigues said. “Simple playoff hockey.”

Simple. Sure.

But the center wasn’t done. He would extend the lead with the goal that made it 4-1, the eventual game-winner, on a give-and-go with Rodrigues that became a necessary score when the Oilers battled back with two goals in the third.

“I can’t say enough good things about the guy,” Rodrigues said. “Just plays the game the right way. Everything about him. He’s just down to earth. The best human being. He’s our leader. He’s our leader for a reason.”

He’s the guy that everyone points to, that the coaches show to the rookies (and the veterans), whose hatred of losing and willingness to work are held up as models. He’s the guy whose consistency allows everyone else to know where to be and what to do, who takes a broken play and makes it sing, who breaks a play himself and finds the back of the net.

“Some of the games that he’s played this year where he’s had the most impact, he doesn’t show up on the scoresheet,” coach Paul Maurice said. “What his gift is, he defines everyone else’s game. Aleksander Barkov, this is what I’m going to do, this is how I’m going to play the game.

“So if you think of being a rookie coming to training camp -- and this is my favorite line of all rookies -- ‘I’ve just got to play my game.’ You don’t have a game. You don’t have one. But that guy’s got a game. Why don’t you just play like him?”

That’s the hope, always. That a little bit of Barkov can rub off on other players, the reason that center Anton Lundell has been dubbed “Baby Barkov,” the reason why his absence would have been as crushing a blow as this Panthers team could have sustained.

The center is a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having had a virtuoso run that has pushed his team to a single win away from the Stanley Cup they could not capture last season.

Because he is everywhere for this team. He is responsible and dynamic. He is safety and power. He is offense. He is defense. He is, in so many ways, the Panthers.

“I just do what I can do in the moment and if it’s make a defensive play, I’m trying my best to do the defensive play,” Barkov said. “It’s pretty much everyone on our team does that: When you have to defend, you defend as hard as possible. When you can play offense, you’re gonna play offense.

“Obviously on my goal, there were a lot of great plays made before the goal. ‘Reino’ making a great defensive play and 'Roddy' giving me the pass on the breakaway. So, when you do the right things and when you trust your linemates, teammates, good things happen.”

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