Despite this season taking a turn for the disappointing from February on, there have been a few promising factors for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Like Sebastian Aho, for example.
The 19-year-old rookie Finn has been an offensive catalyst for stretches of this season and, even with some rough patches, has surpassed the 20-goal mark in last night’s win over the Rangers, and he’s still got 18 games to add to his tally. His milestone marker did come with some help, though:
Being on a line with Elias Lindholm and Jordan Staal this season has been highly gratifying for several Canes players this season, and Aho is the latest beneficiary, though he does plenty to get himself in great position as well.
Above, Justin Faulk has the first shot of the play, with the Rangers’ diamond-PK breaking down enough for him to find an easy shooting lane.
Also important for Carolina: net-front presence. We saw it from newcomer Valentin Zykov on more than one occasion (which led to his first NHL goal), and, like finding water in a desert, we see it here with both Staal and Lindholm creating havoc.
The Hurricanes have long needed this type of traffic and it’s a safe bet they’ll key in on the success of this example going forward.
One thing I find fascinating on any goal is where the scorer is at the start of the play. Some are in the middle of things, while others are a bit farther off, waiting to jump in.
Aho can be found on the weak-side (opposite of the puck) half-wall mainly as a passing option for Faulk, but he is also prepared to capitalize on a rebound that makes it out past the two Canes in front of Antti Raanta.
The Rangers diamond coverage is in decent shape, but Kevin Hayes (in line with the tops of the face-off circles, middle of the zone) has his back turned towards his mark, allowing Aho the leeway to roam as he pleases.
Continuing with the play, Faulk’s shot has made it’s way through the traffic but found Raanta’s pad. And because the Hurricanes have players around the net, they are able to reach the loose puck first.
The play now breaks down into a series of choices (as most plays do). For Lindholm, he could go with the easier—and probably smarter—option of wrapping the puck around for Teuvo Teravainen at the wall...
...Or he could make the higher risk, higher reward play in the form of a slick pass to the waiting Staal, who has made himself available as a better option by sliding out towards the face-off dot.
The confidence that Lindholm has clearly gained this season shows in this instance—the player from prior seasons would have thrown the puck around for a likely shot from up high once more.
Now Staal has a decision to make. The conservative play is, ironically enough, to shoot the puck. It’s important to usually get at least a shot out of a play instead of forcing a risky pass. He’s got a clear shooting lane, and Raanta is fairly deep in the crease which provides multiple holes to shoot for.
But Staal, being the cerebral player he is, already has his mind made up as the puck comes to him. He knows that he has another option and continues the trend by feathering a pass between the unaware Rangers defenders, and Aho makes no mistake with the one-timer.
Notice how, throughout several of the above frames, New York’s Hayes does not have his “head on a swivel,” to borrow a Forslund-ism, to see the awaiting Aho. Nor do any of his teammates, for that matter, until it is too late.
Ryan McDonagh and Raanta clearly bit on the idea that Staal would shoot, and Marc Staal is still recovering from a failed attempt to block Lindholm’s pass.
It’s subpar defending, yes, but Aho deserves credit for finding quiet, open areas of ice to work in. And he couldn’t sneak around without his linemates creating trouble in front of the net.
The goal may have gone to Aho, but when a 5-man unit works as seamlessly as this one did, it’s hard to give credit to any one player—Aho makes sure to recognize the work of his linemates.
Aho’s rookie year has certainly had it’s rollercoaster moments, as one would expect for a teenager adjusting to a fairly steep learning curve in the NHL. But it’s stunning how well he’s performed for much of the season—he has found himself ranked second in both points (38) and goals (20) among the Hurricanes, even with a few dry spells here and there.
With 18 games to go, could Aho push for the Canes’ rookie scoring record of 31 goals set by Jeff Skinner? It would have to be a torrid scoring pace (0.61 goals/game), but it could make for an interesting end to a disappointing season.