Game centers

Barkov and Panthers aim to be better and smarter in Game 2 against Lightning

SUNRISE, Fla. — Alexander BarkovThe elite skills at either end of the rink are put to the test in Eastern Conference Round 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Barkov and the Florida Panthers have their hands full against the Lightning’s host of talented offensive players in the best-of-7 series, which they will look to match in Game 2 at FLA Live Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, CBC, SN, VATS).

“You have to know who you’re up against on the ice,” Panthers captain Barkov said Wednesday. “Of course they have special players, and you have to be careful with them and you have to know where they are and what they’re going to do. So just be ready every time you step on the ice.”

A 4-1 loss in Game 1 on Tuesday brought him back. Despite being without before Brayden Point due to a lower-body injury, the Lightning overcame a 1-0 deficit late in the first period by scoring four straight goals, including three on the power play. Nikita Kucherov and Corey Perry led the way with a goal and an assist apiece.

“We’re just thinking about the next game now and we’ve done a lot of good things, learned from the bad things and moved on,” Barkov said. “You have to win four games in this series and now it’s Game 2. We have to be a little bit better than last game, a little smarter and work a little harder.”

[RELATED: Complete Panthers vs. Lightning series coverage]

One of the best two-way centers in the NHL, Barkov prides himself on working as hard in the defensive zone as he does in the offensive zone. This was recognized again on Tuesday when he was named a finalist for the Selke Trophy, awarded each year to the striker voted the best for excelling in the defensive aspects of the game, as well as Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins and Elias Lindholm of the Calgary Flames.

After winning the award for the first time last season, Barkov is looking to become the first recipient since Bergeron in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

“He’s just an elite two-way guy,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos mentioned. “You have a combination of height (6ft 3in, 215lbs) and skill and intelligence. It’s extremely difficult to defend against. That’s why he’s going to be up for so many awards in his career and why he has already come so far.”

Panthers coach Andrew Brunette relied heavily on Barkov in Game 1, playing him 23:05, which was the most among forwards on either team. Barkov led Florida with five shots on goal and won 14 of 21 faceoffs, but was held scoreless for the first time in four games.

Barkov scored a career-high in the NHL with 39 goals in 67 regular-season games, and his 88 points (49 assists) were his second points in the League after tallying 96 (35 goals, 61 assists) in 82 games in 2018-19. He started slowly in the first round against the Washington Capitals before gradually finding his offensive game and is third on the Panthers with six points (two goals, four assists) in seven games.

“I think he does everything so well for us,” Brunette said. “There’s a reason he’s one of the best players in the league and a Selke winner. A little nervous, I thought, with him at the start of the playoffs. Maybe not quite himself . And I thought he was getting more comfortable as he went on and I think his game got better with every game.”

Passing the Capitals in the first round was a big step for Barkov and the Panthers. He had never won an NHL playoff, and Florida hadn’t won a playoff since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 before losing to the Colorado Avalanche.

So the 4-3 overtime series win over Washington in Game 6 brought Barkov a sense of relief, but not satisfaction.

“There was a lot of talk about it and not winning a round, getting knocked out in the first round and stuff like that,” Barkov said. “Of course you don’t think about it, but it’s there. It’s not there anymore, so we’re happy and happy to be a part of it. But there’s still a long way to go to the point where we really want to be.”

The Lightning, who have won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, are a formidable obstacle. The Panthers learned that last season when they lost to Tampa Bay in six games in the first round.

For a better result in this series, they need to learn quickly from their mistakes in Game 1, starting with being more disciplined. Florida controlled the game with a 24-21 5-on-5 shots advantage but was shorthanded six times, and Tampa Bay took advantage.

“I think it all depends on us, how we play and how we deal with different situations in a game,” Barkov said. “We know their power play is good. We have to stay outside the box and that kind of stuff. We have a lot of things we need to improve in, and we know we need to improve in those areas and we’re going to work on that. So we will continue to improve and continue to build.