On Sunday night in Raleigh, the Hurricanes won an important game against the Boston Bruins by a score of 4-3 in overtime in a back and forth game. The deserving first star of the game was Sebastian Aho who scored 2 goals in the win. The 2 goals including a game-winner were obviously a good night for Aho, but as I said on Twitter following the game, I think there is a much bigger story on Aho from Sunday’s game.
A rapid rise before the NHL
Aho arrived in Raleigh with high hopes this summer after a phenomenal 2015-16 season that saw him play well in the Finnish Elite League and arguably even better centering a top line with Patrik Laine and Magnus Puljujarvi for Finland’s world junior team that won the championship. He had significantly outplayed his early second round selection in the 2015 NHL draft, was all but assured an NHL roster spot for 2016-17 with the Carolina Hurricanes and came with high hopes that he would become a great NHL player. Some patience was in order with Aho as a 19-year old rookie, but the projections were incredibly good.
A good start getting his feet wet at the NHL level in first half of 2016-17 season
To no one’s surprise, Aho made the opening day Hurricanes roster for the 2016-17 season and was slotted to play on a third line with countryman Teuvo Teravainen and another young player in Elias Lindholm. After a couple big games in preseason, the trio actually started slowly in the regular season. There were glimpses of the heady play, skill and great hands that had Aho labeled as a can’t miss, but he was not so much dominant out of the gate. He collected a single assist in each of his first 2 NHL games and had 5 assists through 5 games for an impressive even if fairly quiet point per game pace. But that was followed by a 7-game scoreless run, and Aho did not score his first NHL goal until game 14 when he burst out with 2 goals and an assist against the Washington Capitals. Nearing the halfway point of the long NHL season, Aho on pace for a solid but not really dominant 44 points.
The lead up to the watershed game
Entering January, the Carolina Hurricanes were very much in the playoff hunt still nearing the midway point of the season. But at the same time, the team was and still is on the outside looking in. With the season moving on rapidly and points to be made up in the standings, the point has already come when every games is critical. Calling any single game a “must win” is an overstatement, but the Hurricanes need to string together a run of wins at some point and definitely cannot afford any extended run of losses.
After a strong December, January started rough. First the Canes went 1-2 in a tough week against 3 good teams and arguably deserved better. Then the Canes opened the second week of January by losing arguably the most winnable game of 4 that week with a lackluster effort against a beatable team on home ice. The Hurricanes did muster a split in a tough road back-to-back set which set up a crucial home game to finish out the week and at least claw back to 2-2 for the week.
But even bigger than the general direction of the team in terms of wins and losses was the underlying trend of finding ways to lose too often even if maybe they could claim that they deserved better. After a solid win in St. Louis on Thursday, the Hurricanes faced a tough opponent in the Blackhawks on Friday. The game saw the Hurricanes pepper Chicago’s goalie with shot after shot with no luck. By any shot-based stats measure the Hurricanes should have won. By all of the recaps/accounts of the game that I watched (team broadcast) or read, the team should have won. While I understood the case that maybe the Canes boat load of shots could have yielded another goal or 2 and maybe a win, I refused to buy the “victim of a hot goalie” story that has been an earmark of many a struggling Hurricanes team in the past.
My recap from the Blackhawks loss said as much. The short version is thus. The other team’s goalie clearly was having a pretty good night and was unlikely to be just cleanly beaten on any shot that he saw/tracked especially from a ways out. Yet the Hurricanes seemed content to spend the entirety of the game playing “let me try to beat him.” The power play mostly lacked any kind of Bryan Bickell-like net front presence. Not the kind that stood safely to the side and tried for a rare but pretty tip, but the kind that parked directly in front of the goalie and stayed there when the puck was coming. And at even strength, the Canes also seemed content to fire low percentage shots instead of just getting the puck to the crease, creating some chaos and then seeing what happened in an old school Erik Cole kind of way. In that game, the Hurricanes could have put up 70 shots on goal, and it likely would have only increased the Paul Bunyan-esque folklore quality of Scott Darling’s outing stopping all of them without significantly increasing the Hurricanes chance of netting another goal or 2.
The whole thing has an air of feeling sorry for yourself and accepting your bad fate instead of digging down and doing the hard stuff to push through.
I am not privy to what Peters said after the game, at practice or in meetings between the Blackhawks game and the Bruins game on Sunday night, but Tripp and John who are obviously close to the team made some comments about getting to the greasy areas on the telecast. In addition, there was no interview after the lackluster first period when Peters apparently locked everyone in and had some things to say.
Again, I am not privy to what Peters said, but if I was a betting man, I would make a pretty big wager that a huge component of Peters’ message between games was the need to fight harder to get people and pucks to the crease area and will some goals into the net instead of just relying on the pretty stuff, especially on nights when the opposing goalie is snuffing all of that out early.
Enter Sebastian Aho
So in a nutshell, I believe pretty strongly that there was a demand by Coach Bill Peters for the team to do better fighting to get players and pucks to the dirty area and converting it to an ugly goal or 2.
Of all of the Hurricanes players on Sunday night, 19-year old rookie and 5 foot 11 inch, 172-pound Sebastian Aho far and away most noticeably went to the crease and battled like a warrior. After a lackluster start and a 1-0 deficit, probably the Hurricanes best shift of the first period saw the Aho/Teravainen/Stempniak line get possession in the offensive zone and open up the shooting gallery. The barrage saw 3 decent scoring chances all with Sebastian Aho parked in the crowded and sometimes dangerous space at the top of the crease. He had 1 really good scoring chance himself and was also there creating chaos as a couple other players tried to shoot into the fray. The results were nil on the scoreboard, but the effort level and willingness of Aho to do the hard work was unmistakable.
With the Hurricanes down 1-0 and mostly sputtering entering the second period, it again was Aho time. At about the time, the puck made its way to Jaccob Slavin at the point, Aho was parked at Aho was at the side of the net with 6 foot 5 inch, 205-pound Brandon Carlo at the front of the net. The easy and logical play for Aho would have been to try to get his stick in for a tip on Slavin’s shot. Instead, Aho pushed his way between Carlo and the Bruins goalie, got banged by Carlo in the process and did his best to make his way to the front of the crease and goalie. It is not clear that Aho ever actually saw it, but the puck caught a piece of him and bounced into the net.
At the point in the game when Aho netted his ugliest goal of the season, rookie Zane McIntyre was cruising and had a ton of confidence and a 1-0 lead. Aho’s goale broke the curse of the “hot goalie” and pulled the Hurricanes were in the game at 1-1. After being dented, McIntyre went on on to have a very ‘meh’ game overall later seeing both McClement and Ryan score on shots that leaked through him.
Aho had at least 1 more instance of fighting his way to the front of the crease when his line had the puck in the offensive zone before finishing the game in a good way with a more typical Aho scoring play that saw him fire in sniper-like fashion and beat McIntyre from between the circles in overtime.
I wrote on Twitter after the game that I thought Aho’s 2 goals might actually draw attention away from the bigger story which was the leadership displayed by young Sebastian Aho in Sunday’s win. As the second lightest player on the team at 172 pounds, Aho stepped far outside of his natural skill set and most noticeably led the team’s effort to push through what could have been yet another “hot goalie” story by being a warrior and fighting for real estate at the front of the crease all night.
When a player whose core game is skill and scoring makes an obvious effort to do not just his fair share but more than his fair share of the hard stuff, the rest of the team MUST follow. His hard hat effort in/around the crease on Sunday makes it incredibly clear what needs to be done, importantly that no one is exempt and that players cannot just do it if/when convenient. Aho’s play also demonstrates unselfishness in his game that demands to be matched by team mates.
So on Monday when many people are thinking about the pretty goal to win the game in overtime and the fact that rookie phenom Sebastian Aho netted 2 goals in a big win, I will have visions of him battling bigger players in front of the crease. And I will smile thinking about that part of Sunday’s game hiding behind the headlines and the scoring that are a huge testament on who Sebastian Aho is (not will be, but is) as player and leader.