It was almost as though he never left. After a concussion knocked Aleksander Barkov out of the Panthers’ lineup for 6 games and over two weeks, the 20-year old Finn made his return on Thursday night and propelled the team to a 3-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes.
The Panthers lost Barkov, their top-line center, for the second time this season when he sustained a concussion following a check to the head by Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader back on February 8th. As a result, the Panthers were forced to move on and it suddenly became necessary for players like Vincent Trocheck to step up and help fill the massive void.
Barkov had been on a 4-game goal streak entering the tilt against Detroit and had been playing the best hockey of his young career.
Nick Bjugstad put it simply by saying, “Barkov has tough shoes to fill,” and head coach Gerard Gallant echoed those sentiments when he said, “You hate to lose your top player, but that’s part of the game.”
So off the Panthers went playing the next 6 games at home without Barkov, and fortunately, they did well enough to maintain their first place position in the Atlantic Division, something they’ve been holding on to since January 2nd.
Barkov had been practicing for the past week-and-a-half or so on his own in an orange no-contact jersey prior to the team’s scheduled skates. He finally rejoined the squad on Monday and did so in a normal practice jersey meaning he was ready to return to the lineup, and it came at a good time too as linemate Jonathan Huberdeau went down last Saturday with an injury similar to the one suffered by Barkov.
“Last 2 weeks, I have been working hard…I’ve been biking, working out in the gym so I try to get better and stronger,” said Barkov. “Everyday I’ve been doing the same thing, doesn’t matter if I’m playing or not.”
To most, it was no surprise when Barkov broke the 1-1 tie between the Panthers and Coyotes on Thursday night, not only because he leads the team with 8 power play goals, but because he’s just been so impressive all year long that it just made sense that he would pick up right where he left off.
The goal gave him 17 on the season which sets a new career-high in 27 fewer games than it took for him to reach the 16-goal mark last year.
But he didn’t stop there. As Jaromir Jagr skated behind the Arizona net, Barkov snuck towards the front of the crease, went in the middle of three Arizona players, and one-timed a pass from the 44-year old past Louis Domingue. On that goal, he set a new career-high in points with 36.
“I got a pretty good pass from Jagr, it was an easy job to put it in [the net],” Barkov said.
“It’s always nice to be back and always nice to be back playing,” said Barkov after his 3rd two-goal game of the season. “When you’re not playing, it’s pretty boring…you can’t do anything else, just work out.”
Barkov’s return to the lineup meant he also returned to the special teams units that he has become an incredibly important part of over the past couple of years. Before his power play goal tonight, the Panthers scored with the man-advantage just once since February 6th, the game before Barkov was injured. During the 6 games he missed, the Panthers’ allowed 7 power play goals compared to 6 since the beginning of January.
“Finally I’m playing, and I just try to have fun,” said Barkov. “[I missed] being around the team, playing with the team, and enjoying the winning with the team.”
Jaromir Jagr also wanted to have some fun with Barkov during post-game. After Barkov scored the 2 goals, he began passing the puck more in the 3rd period rather than putting it on net. At one point, Barkov was close to the net but decided to make a long cross-ice pass, and Jagr didn’t want him to get away with it.
“He scored 2 goals, but you guys remember the 3rd period, he was by himself in front of the net and he passed [the puck] to nobody in the corner? You guys remember that? That was impressive, I’ve never seen anything like that, that was impressive,” said Jagr.
Jagr continued the playful heckling from across the locker room as Barkov went to do an interview with another reporter.
“Hey Barky, tell him about the pass in the 3rd period,” said Jagr.
With the win, the Panthers improved to 3-0-0 when Barkov scored 2 or more goals in a game this season, 7-0-1 when he registers 2 or more points, and 10-3-2 when he scores a goal.
So, the takeaway from all of this?