Laine, Jets face Barkov, Panthers in Finland
Aleksander Barkov and Patrik Laine will take center stage on Thursday in their home nation of Finland.
Barkov's Florida Panthers (2-4-3) and Laine's Winnipeg Jets (7-4-1) will square off for two nights in a row at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki as part of the 2018 NHL Global Series.
Both Barkov, 23, and Laine, 20, were born in Tampere, a two-hour drive from Helsinki. The two stars are on opposing sides in the NHL but they were linemates while playing for Finland in 2016 for the IIHF World Championship.
"At the World Championship, it was natural," Barkov told NHL.com. "We're from the same town. I've known about him for a long time. I knew he was going to be a very good player.
"And he knew about me, so it was an easy transition to friendship. He's a very good friend."
There will be a lot of friends at Hartwall on Thursday as Barkov and Laine have said they will leave numerous tickets for their loved ones from Finland.
It should be a great show, especially the individual battle between these two dynamic forwards.
Barkov was the NHL's second overall draft pick in 2013 and became an All-Star last season. Considered one of the league's best two-way centers, he scored 27 goals and totaled a career-high 78 points last season.
"He has sick hands," Laine told NHL.com when asked about Barkov. "He plays with a long stick, so his reach is really good. He's good at back-checking and taking the puck away. He's pretty magical on shootouts. His overall game is one of the best."
Laine is pretty special too. The NHL's No. 2 overall draft pick in 2016, he scored 36 goals as a rookie and 44 last season. Laine finished second in the league in goals last season, trailing only Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
And, like Ovechkin, Laine's one-timer is nearly unstoppable. Laine led the NHL last season with 20 power-play goals.
Panthers starting goalie Roberto Luongo has yet to return from injuring his right knee on opening night. Backup netminder James Reimer has struggled in seven games, including five starts (1-3-1). He has a high goals-against average (3.41) and an unimpressive save percentage .878. The third-string goalie is Michael Hutchinson (1-1-2, 4.17 GAA, .839 save percentage).
Winnipeg's goaltender choices are a pair of 25-year-olds: starter Connor Hellebuyck (4-4-1, 3.00 GAA, .907 save percentage) and backup Laurent Brossoit (3-0-0, 1.67 GAA, .957 save percentage).
Hellebuyck led the NHL with 44 wins last season, posting a 2.36 GAA and finishing second in the voting for the Vezina Trophy.
So far, though, he has been outplayed by Brossoit.
Jets coach Paul Maurice said Hellebuyck will get the nod Thursday but he has not made a decision on his starter for Friday's rematch.
"The open door on that one is that Laurent has been so good in volume games. He's played so well," said Maurice. "My starting point would be slightly leaning toward that, but I'll judge it all based on the game."