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A star still rising: How Sebastian Aho is making the difference for the Canes

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The 23-year-old Finnish phenom has captivated the hearts of every single Hurricanes fan with his enormous skill set and limitless talent and now he is proving time and time again that he can rise to any occasion.

Carolina Hurricanes v New York Rangers Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Sebastian Aho is a player who thrives in the big moments. At every level he has set himself apart from his peers with his senses, skills and compete level.

Whether it was helping lead Finland to gold at the 2016 World Juniors, igniting the comeback with a shorthanded goal in Game 7 in Washington, or dominating the New York Rangers with three straight multi-point games, Aho has flourished when the spotlight has found him.

But it took a while before the spotlight actually found what was waiting past the first-round of what has quickly been realized to have been one of the most star-studded drafts in over a decade.

Now five years removed from his draft year and since considered a top-five player from his class, Aho is seemingly poised to lead a stocked Carolina Hurricanes team to a Stanley Cup.

“He’s an elite player, and I think he wants his time,” said Carolina’s head coach Rod Brind’Amour after Aho’s two-goal and three-point performance in Game 3 against the New York Rangers. “How much more can you expect from him? I don’t know. I think he’s getting better and better. There are great athletes out here, but the ones that want to get better and work to get better are the ones that continually get better. He’s one of them.”

During the pause, Aho went back home to Finland where he skated with other Finnish NHLers and also his former Liiga team, Oulun Kärpät, up to four times a week. He stated that he wanted to be as ready as he could be if the season were to return and watching him play, it is apparent how hard he pushed himself.

Before the pause, Aho was sixth in league scoring with 38 goals and was just two shy of being only the third Hurricane to reach the 40-goal milestone since Eric Staal and Jeff O’Neil. He also was averaging nearly a point-per-game as the Hurricanes’ top player.

Sean Tierney

Aho wasn’t just a one-track offensive star either. On top of having led the Hurricanes in scoring in three of his four seasons with the team (he finished second in his rookie campaign), Aho has also become an extremely reliable player in his own end and one of Carolina’s best penalty killers over the past two seasons.

He finished tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with four this season, and has scored the most shorthanded goals in the past two seasons combined with an astounding 4.76 power play goals against per 60 which is around an 85% success rate for the penalty kill when Aho is on the ice.

Micah Blake McCurdy

Aho isn’t hovering near the blueline nor slacking on the backcheck when he plays. He is constantly going and will play a 200 foot game nearly every night whether that means hounding a puck carrier or chasing a dump-in. It’s an effect that bleeds down the lineup and inspires his teammates.

“They’re our top line and they’re not afraid to get pucks behind the d-men and get to work and play hard down there,” said Canes forward Jordan Martinook. “When you see your best players doing that, it just flows all the way through our lineup.”

Even with all the skill in the world, the thing that has impressed Brind’Amour the most is how Aho has carried himself and the way he approaches the game.

“[Aho’s] definitely matured as a hockey player,” Brind’Amour said. “I think he’s understanding what he has to do for our team to be successful. We’re fortunate to have guys that put the team first and he’s definitely doing that. He’s playing a team game, and obviously he’s got all the talent in the world. You can see that with some of those plays that he makes. His maturity as a hockey player is certainly coming to the forefront.”

And it’s that maturity that is helping Aho find success in the playoffs where the mental toll of the game can be just as high as the physical.

Aho finished off the Qualifying Round with three goals and eight points over the three-game series and currently paces the league in playoff points per game.

In fact, Aho is also now tied for first in career playoff points (20) among the 2015 draft class with Timo Meier, while having played in 17 less games than Meier. He outpaces players such as Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen and even the “Next One,” Connor McDavid, the gem of the class.

Getting the first taste of playoff hockey last season is part of what Aho feels has made the team stronger and more competitive.

“It was big for us,” Aho said on last season’s run. “We are still a young team and for me and a lot of other guys, it was our first time in the playoffs. We beat two really good teams, so it gave us some confidence. It was only the Conference Finals that we got out at, so we are a hungry team now.”

That hunger was evident as the team blasted past what was normally a historic wall in Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers, being the only team to sweep their Qualifying Round series.

“Great players rise to the occasion and he came through for us,” Brind’Amour said on Aho after the series.

But Aho isn’t one to take credit. He knows what he is capable of but he isn’t a cocky or arrogant player. In fact, he is more likely than not to push the credit to his teammates.

“I have two really, really high-end players on my wings,” Aho said after Game 3 despite what was two great individual plays that put the game and series away. “They both help me a lot out there and I think we play pretty well together.”

To him, it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. It’s a team game. What matters to him is that the team wins and Aho will do everything he can to reach that goal.

Now still awaiting the final round-robin game between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins to determine their opponent, the Hurricanes are prepared to be firing on all cylinders as they try to prove that they are as deserving as any team to win the Stanley Cup and Aho may just be the central cog to get them there.