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About Last Night: S.W.A.T.

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Two of the oldest Hurricanes combined with a couple of the youngest to pace the team’s first victory in seven tries last night in Philadelphia.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes brought their own S.W.A.T. team to Philadelphia last night, and left with their first win in seven outings.

Jordan Staal, Justin Williams, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen led the charge for the visitors, scoring goals, winning battles, creating opportunities and ultimately ensuring that another two points did not slip through Carolina’s fingers.

Staal — undoubtedly still dealing with his own personal battles — was concerned about keeping pace in his first game back since Feb. 18, according to Tripp Tracy. But despite everything, this is Jordan Staal we’re talking about. He’s a natural leader, even if he doesn’t always show up in the box score.

So it should come as no surprise that he provided a clear boost to a Canes team that had slipped to 0-4-2 in its last six games, generating offense by dominating 50/50 battles in the corners and earning an assist on Williams’ second goal of the game. And the three-point-producing man noted Staal’s welcome presence in the Canes’ attack.

From a purely hockey-focused standpoint, Canes fans seem to be somewhat split on Staal’s value to the team, citing his contract and lack of flashy offensive production as detractors from his importance. But if the Hurricanes’ performances in his absence are any indication, this team needs him. Take a look:

Sure the numbers are a bit arbitrary, but Staal continues to be one of the team’s most reliable forwards. Not only does he take care of the dirty work to win the puck and absorb hits for the sake of making the right plays, but he regularly lifts his teammates’ play and creates opportunities for them to succeed. He won’t steal the show every night, but that’s OK.

Backtracking to Williams for a moment — what a performance from the 36-year-old. The North State Journal’s Cory Lavalette did some digging and found that Williams’ 2G, 1A showing basically guaranteed a win on its own.

Carolina’s big splash in 2017 free agency has performed about as expected — 41 points in 64 games isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off, but it’s good for third on the team and he remains a top offensive producer on the Canes’ roster — but, much like that of Staal, last night’s effort from Williams was a perfect display of leading by example.

Seeing your team’s oldest player drive to the net and STAY THERE should imprint on the younger Hurricanes. Carolina has long lacked a willingness/ability/??? to get to the front of the net and create havoc, but as Williams shows there, that’s how you create the one or two extra garbage goals that separate wins from overtimes, and overtimes from losses.

And it’s not just going and standing — watch Williams fight for position with with Brandon Manning. That’s the key. If Williams loses body position, Petr Mrazek can easily find that puck and cover it. But wedging himself goalside of Manning allows him to already be in position to whack home any rebounds. It’s by no means a glorious way to score, but the scoreboard counts it the same.

From there, go ahead and guess where he scored his second goal.

Not quite as #gritty as his first, but still well done to set down roots in the high-danger scoring area. And if you didn’t know, he doubles as a pretty good playmaker, even when his pass is somewhat accidental.

Which brings us to Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. Looking at that goal, it’s pretty clear the kind of elite shooting ability Aho possesses. Yes, it’s a fast, hard and accurate shot, but the key to it is how quickly the puck is on and off his stick, and how well he hides his target.

I’ll get more into this play in this weekend’s Systems Analyst, but here’s the basics: in the NHL, everyone can shoot the puck hard, but the best of the best can shoot awkwardly. You know, when the puck is in their feet or just outside of their “wheelhouse,” they still fire a world-class laser that the goalie can’t track because the normal shooting movement is altered. Aho did that fairly well when he entered the League, and his only improved since then — this goal is no different.

He gathers it in a position a bit further from his body than he would probably like, and immediately wires it home in a more circular motion, rather than direct from behind his back foot straight towards goal. Less-skilled shooters might wait a split-second to ensure the puck is flat, or to adjust their shooting angle. Aho already knows where the puck is and where it’s headed, which puts Mrazek way behind on the play.

But despite his individual skill, Aho is most dangerous when sharing the ice with Teuvo Teravainen.

The blossoming chemistry between the two Finns continues to be impressive to watch, and their numbers are starting to raise eyebrows. In their past 10 games together, Aho and Teravainen have posted a combined 17 points. They each boast 50 points on the year, good for a shared place atop the Canes’ scoring list. Aho paces the team with 23 goals — one shy of last season’s total — and looks poised to crack the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his young career. Teravainen has set a career-high point total in each of the five seasons he has played in the National Hockey League, and did the same this year, tying last year’s final mark of 42 points in nearly 30 fewer games and now hitting 50 points for the first time in his career.

Players like Staal, Williams and Cam Ward still lead this team, and will continue to do so for this season and next. Perhaps even the one after that. But when it comes time to officially pass the torch, Aho and Teravainen, along with players like Jeff Skinner, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Trevor van Riemsdyk — who had perhaps his best game as a Hurricanes blueliner last night — and Scott Darling will be the ones to pick up the mantle. And that’s a promising sign.

But for now, the Canes have 18 games to figure out take a much-needed step forward in their rebuild, and performances like last night’s will go a long way towards ensuring their hard work this season is not in vain.