On the eve of the Carolina Hurricanes finally getting back to full strength, they were dealt another setback.
Yesterday, the team announced that Sebastian Aho, the team leader in all major scoring categories who had logged five goals and 12 points in his last five games, was put on the COVID protocol list alongside rookie Seth Jarvis and a member of the Canes’ training staff.
Aho missed the team’s game in Vancouver for what was initially described as a non-COVID illness. He, Jarvis, and the training staff member will quarantine in Vancouver for the time being as the rest of the team finishes the road trip in Minnesota tonight.
The Canes are expected to get some huge reinforcements tonight, though, with defensemen Brett Pesce and Tony DeAngelo slated to return from COVID protocol and play their first games since November 28.
They will also welcome Andrew Poturalski, who played his only two NHL games with the team all the way back in the 2016-17 season.
Poturalski leads all AHL skaters in goals, assists, and points, thanks in large part to the clinic that he put the Texas Stars through over his last three games, racking up ten points in a series of efforts that even Aho would be impressed by. Yesterday, Poturalski was named the AHL player of the week, and Aho was named the second star of the week in the NHL.
The team got bailed out of their defensive jam by the impressive play of Jalen Chatfield and some monster games from Jaccob Slavin, but it will take a lot for them to get anywhere close to the level of production that Aho brings them, especially when you take into account that he factored in on the scoring on seven of Carolina’s last eight goals scored before he missed the game in Vancouver.
Poturaslki’s role with the team is yet to be seen, but he’s not Aho. No one on this team is Aho except for Aho.
You’re welcome for that great analysis.
There were other strong call-up options, thanks to how stacked Chicago’s forward group is. Stefan Noesen had a great camp and has been very good through the first couple of months, as has CJ Smith. Jack Drury, a natural center, is showing out as an AHL rookie, and Josh Leivo was a favorite to compete for a roster spot entering training camp. Given that the team only called up one forward, it seems possible that Jordan Martinook will make his return tonight from a lower-body injury. If not, it will be another 11 forwards/seven defensemen game.
However, the reality is that no one on that team will replace what Aho brings. So, they went with the most prolific offensive producer, who happens to be a veteran pro player who has won an AHL player of the year trophy and a Calder Cup, and called it a day.
Sights should turn to the likes of Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal, who already carry a substantial weight on their shoulders on a night-to-night basis but will be tasked with taking on an even greater role.
Andrei Svechnikov, who is riding a notable cold spell offensively, will need to be heard from more over the coming weeks, as well.
This is a precarious situation, and with the Calgary Flames placing players on the COVID protocol list as recently as this morning, it’s entirely possible that this outbreak isn’t over yet for the Hurricanes.
We’re in the wait-and-see territory, and you just have to hope for the best.
The Road Trip
The Hurricanes are on the verge of closing out this five-game road trip, and despite the obstacles that have stood in their way, they have crushed it to this point and have clinched a winning record out west.
They played one of their best games of the season a week ago in Winnipeg, scoring early and closing out in the third period en route to a 4-2 win.
Treading was more challenging in Calgary, as they needed overtime to decide a low-event 2-1 game. Aho scored both goals and carried that team-lifting performance over to Edmonton, where he scored two more goals and was the standout player as the Hurricanes took down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Without Aho in Vancouver, scoring was much tougher to come by, and Thatcher Demko snuffed out all but one of the chances they did get. Ironically, Jarvis had one of his best games in a few weeks against the Canucks and had a beautiful saucer pass assist on Martin Necas’ goal. Now, he’s also out of the lineup.
The newly formed trio of Jarvis, Necas, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi was probably the team’s best forward line, but now they have to go back to the drawing board to find something else.
After Antti Raanta got the net against the Canucks, expect Frederik Andersen to come back in Minnesota. He’s allowed just two goals on 50 shots over his last two starts and stole the third period against the Oilers thanks to his big saves late in that game when Edmonton was stacking their lineup and going full throttle.
The Hurricanes have set themselves up well after their 3-0 start to the trip. Going into Minnesota and getting a win tonight would be an impressive accomplishment, but if they can’t secure two points, they can still feel really good about this road trip.
The Work Horse
Perhaps the biggest benefit of getting Pesce and DeAngelo back is now having the ability to reel in Jaccob Slavin’s gaudy usage over the last two weeks.
He has been unbelievably good.
Over his last six games, Slavin is averaging 28:14 of ice time per game and has played north of 29 minutes four times, including the overtime game in Calgary, where he played 32:28.
Thirty-two minutes and twenty-eight seconds.
That’s too much, but to his credit, he is also playing his best hockey of the season and doing it under severe stress. In 29:51 of ice time against the Jets, he scored his first goal of the season and added an assist.
Jaccob with a lil sneaky sneak pic.twitter.com/NpbYd7jfTB— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) December 8, 2021
Against Edmonton, Slavin turned in a vintage performance and successfully shut down the two best players in the league. In the third period, the Hurricanes took a penalty that gave the Oilers a chance to tie the game, but Slavin was on the ice for two full minutes, broke up a grade-A chance from Zach Hyman on the doorstep, blocked a one-timer, cleared the zone, and then broke up a re-entry to effectively neutralize the man advantage on his own.
Then, in the loss to Vancouver, he was out there for a measly 27:04, blocked two shots, and delivered the biggest hit of his NHL career and perhaps the best hit in the NHL this season while successfully negating the Canucks’ bid on an empty-net goal late in the third period.
In case you were asleep and missed it, Jaccob Slavin brought the boom in the closing moments of last night's game. pic.twitter.com/5heaYrp5h3— Walt Ruff (@WaltRuff) December 13, 2021
Aho has gotten a lot of deserved praise for just how well he has played over the last five games, but Slavin has been every bit as dominant over that stretch. He has been to the defense what Aho has been to the offense. The undisputed leader.
While the Hurricanes’ depth has passed almost every test, I’d argue that the Hurricanes have been running on three key components: Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, and goaltending.
It’s really been as simple as that.