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Dave Hyde: Best fit for Barkov and Reinhart? Panthers have final stretch to tinker before playoffs

SUNRISE — The audition has started in smashing fashion. Vladimir Tarasenko held hands with his children on the ice before Saturday’s game, scored two goals in it, then framed it afterward by saying, “I’ve never had a day like this.”

The Florida Panthers have never had a final stretch of regular season like this to indulge some ideas and fine-tune some playoff thinking, either. How to best enter the playoffs? Do you rest some or play hard to the end? Does the No. 1 seed matter at all?

Then there’s the tactical decision on whether Tarasenko, who arrived after last week’s trade, best fits on a line with hockey intellectualists like Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart. That’s not my description of the Panthers’ tandem, by the way. It’s this team’s applied thought.

“Smart,” is the go-to adjective of coach Paul Maurice for Barkov and Reinhart.

“Smart,” Barkov again called Reinhart after Saturday’s win, just as Reinhart has called Barkov.

“They are elite and so smart,” Tarasenko said Saturday after playing two games with them since being traded from Ottawa.

Tarasenko and goalie Anthony Stolarz were Saturday’s headline. But Reinhart and Barkov teamed up for the goal of the game. Calgary tied it early in the second period, 1-1. Twenty-nine seconds later, Reinhart shut Calgary’s hope by backhanding a pass to Barkov in open space in front of the net.

“I just had to shoot it in the net,” Barkov said.

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Often, it’s the other way around. Typically, it’s Barkov finding Reinhart in a way that explains their statistics. Barkov set the franchise’s career assist record, and you just had to look across the ice at Calgary’s Jonathan Huberdeau to see the impact. Huberdeau scored 30 goals twice with the Panthers and never fewer over his final five years in Florida than the 20 he had in a 41-game season. He had 15 last year in Calgary, nine this year.

Reinhart’s 45 goals are behind only Hall of Famer Pavel Bure for the most in franchise history. His leading the league in power play and short-handed goals tells his smarts of finding space and creating moments as much as finishing plays.

Beyond their numbers, Barkov and Reinhart also answer a mystery inside the team: How didn’t they click last season? Maurice paired them up for obvious reasons and said, “It looked like it would work. The plays were made, the defense good. They weren’t cheating the game. I understand why I liked it.

“But we were 20 games in and there’s still no numbers there. And those two men have to have numbers. It’s a part for what they do for us. … And it didn’t work. That surprised me. When we got to training camp this (season), we said we’re gonna have to give it another look. And when you see these two guys together on the ice, they look so right together this time.”

That’s because they see a similar world, Barkov said.

“When you think about the game the same way, you know where he’s going to be and he knows where everyone else is going to be,” Barkov said. “There’s not too many guys like that. They’re easy to play with.”

And Barkov? “He’s just a powerful man,” Maurice said. “There isn’t a piece of his game that you hide. So, he’s going to be out on the ice on the left hand, and on his weak side, when you’re killing a penalty and on either face off, if you’re defending or you need (a goal).

“He’s going to play against the other team’s best, and both coaches kind of want that. I want Barkov against their best, and they know they have to play their best against him. He carries the big weight down the middle.”

Now comes Tarasenko off a trade into this equation. It’s Maurice’s job to gauge where he best fits. By extension, he’s deciding where another top goal scorer, Carter Verhaeghe, best fits, too. For now, that’s on a a line as emotionally heated with Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett as the the Bakov-Reihnhart pairing is cool and calculated.

“Some of it’s a feel,” Maurice said. “There are styles of game. Verhaeghe is really good with Bennett, just the speed kind of chaos. And Matthew is so good at reading out there. Nobody’s better.”

The Panthers also got another arrival Saturday in veteran Kyle Okposo, the former Buffalo captain, who could play on the third- or fourth-line. He picked the Panthers as the team he wanted to go to and Saturday showed why.

“A template in how to win,” he called it.

Maurice wants this final stretch to show this team can win in various ways. Saturday checked that box. Stolarz kept them in it the first period. They scored four goals on 19 shots in the second period and glided home from there.

Seventeen games left before the playoffs. The big picture is easy to see — these Panthers are contenders. It’s the tinkering like if Tarasenko best fits with Reinhart and Barkov that’s at work now.