Sasha Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk — the Panthers’ yin and yang — take Florida to new heights

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It was supposed to be a quiet, late-offseason summer day at home in Finland and instead Aleksander Barkov was working the phones.

The star center woke up to the most shocking news of his NHL career. The Florida Panthers traded for Matthew Tkachuk, trading longtime Barkov running mates Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to do it, and a whirlwind of emotions flooded the captain. He was fascinated and sentimental, curious and cautious. He texted Tkachuk to welcome him in South Florida and called general manager Bill Zito to talk about why he made the trade.

His phone buzzed. It was Tkachuk.

“Effing right,” the superstar right wing texted back, as Barkov recalled last year, staying away from using profanity of his own. Although Barkov never had any specific beef with Tkachuk, the American winger’s edge — and his penchant for upsetting just about opponent whose path he crossed — was no secret.

The Panthers were going to change. It was clear right away.

“It’s unexplainable what he’s brought to this team,” star defenseman Aaron Ekblad said Wednesday after Florida won the Eastern Conference barely 10 months after it traded for Tkachuk. “From the words he says to his actions on the ice, it’s awesome.”

By the time they ended, the Eastern Conference finals were all about Tkachuk. He scored four goals in four games, including three game-winning goals on the final shot of each game. The Panthers finished off their sweep of the Hurricanes with a 4-3 win after Tkachuk scored a power-play goal with just 4.9 seconds left to send Florida to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996.

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Tkachuk was, understandably, at the bottom of the dog pile as more than 20,000 fans at FLA Live Arena roared at another all-time moment from the All-Star, who also won Game 1 of the East finals by scoring a walk-off goal in quadruple overtime to end the sixth-longest game in NHL history. A few minutes after his series-winning goal, Tkachuk was also the first to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy, scoffing at superstition and encouraging everyone to take their turn with it. A little later on, he was still parading the trophy around to pose for pictures with friends and family.

It was captain-like behavior from the star forward, and he could only do it because of who his captain is.

Tkachuk ingrained himself into the team, his personality infected everyone and there was never any friction. It could only happen because Barkov let it.

“There have always been captains who are almost completely different players than everybody else. They’re just at a different level. That can be lonely sometimes, almost isolating when ... there’s a gap between you and everybody else,” coach Paul Maurice said Thursday. “Matthew comes in and they have a completely different game, but their talent level, in a lot of ways, would be equal. They both do some incredible things that not a lot of other players [can].

“The hockey’s different and one is slightly more verbose than the other, but, in terms of humility, I would say they’re brothers, more closely related than anything else.”

Barkov, 27, has been the captain since 2018, and a Panther since he was 17 and the No. 2 pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Since Barkov became the captain, Florida has made four of its nine all-time postseason appearances. The Panthers, at their foundation, are what they are because of Barkov, whether it was him shutting down superstar center Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs in Round 2, or his line sparking comebacks in Games 1 and 2 of Round 3 last week in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Tkachuk, 25, came to South Florida last year with a reputation as an agitator and a “bastard,” as Maurice put it, and yet he changed every Panther’s opinion when he showed up in the offseason and started taking everyone — from the trainers to the equipment staff — out to dinner. He immediately became an alternate captain, led Florida to only its second Final and is already tied for third on the franchise’s all-time postseason scoring list with 21 points. The Panthers, now, are what they are because of Tkachuk, whether it’s all these last-minute, game-winning goals or the way he has gotten Florida to become a hard-hitting, inexplicably confident No. 8 seed.

The situation works perfectly for both of them. Tkachuk wasn’t going to tone down his personality, and Barkov wasn’t going to care whether he did. Barkov knows better than to try to be someone he’s not, and Tkachuk readily handles those vocal responsibilities.

Ultimately, are all just superficial traits. There’s much more to leadership than just being loud or celebrating flamboyantly, or being really good or even working really hard.

“You would think from the outside that their personalities are completely different and I get why you would say that. One’s quiet, one’s a talker. One runs around the ice in terms of he’s involved in every collision and the other guy plays a very cerebral game,” Maurice said, “but, at the core, they’re actually the same people: both incredibly humble. They treat their teammates and there’s no separation in the value of men between the two very elite, talented men and the rest of the players.”

Barkov is beloved because of his workmanlike attitude and his sneaky sense of humor. Tkachuk is beloved because of his big personality and how he seizes big moments. They’re both beloved because of their kindness and work ethic.

As rubber rats rained onto the ice at the end of Game 4 and the NHL placed the Prince Wales Trophy at one end of the ice, Barkov and Tkachuk skated stride for stride for their prize, almost 100 feet in front of any of their teammates. Barkov’s jersey has a “C” on it and Tkachuk’s an “A,” and yet those are only just letters and titles. In this moment, they were really co-captains.

“Ever since he got here, I thought it was like we knew each other for 10 years,” Barkov said Wednesday, “the way you talk to me, and the way you get everyone together in this organization and this team, and how we spend time off ice.”

He was sitting in front of a room full of reporters cameras, but now he was talking directly to his teammate.

“It’s just been like an unreal addition,” he continued. “Everyone sees what he’s doing on the ice, but off the ice it’s been eye opening how great of a person he is, and how he breathes hockey and everything around it every day. It’s unreal.”

It isn’t easy to embarrass Tkachuk and even he was looking down, and rubbing at his mouth and shaking his head by the time Barkov was done with his soliloquy.

“That’s pretty nice,” he said. “I’ve got to start doing more of these with Bark next to me.”