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Hurricanes/Blackhawks recap: Aho hat trick brings Canes closer to division title

Sebastian Aho is good at hockey, and he reiterated that with a standout performance that ended with hats on the ice and the Canes in full control.

Sebastian Aho scores on Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Malcolm Subban during the second period, Monday, May 3, 2021 in PNC Arena. Aho recorded a hat trick, aiding the Canes in a 5-2 victory.
Kaydee Gawlik

It wasn’t too long ago that a matchup between the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks featured a team perennially contending for Stanley Cups facing a team that largely couldn’t get out of its own way. That was again the case on Monday night at PNC Arena.

It’s just that the identities of the teams have changed wholesale in the past couple of years.

The Hurricanes scored goals on pinball deflections, from below the goal line and just about any other way Sebastian Aho wanted in taking a relatively easy 5-2 win over the Blackhawks that takes them two points closer to the Central Division crown.

It became obvious early that the ice was tilted toward the Chicago net. Every time the Hurricanes possessed the puck in the offensive zone, they moved it around like they were on a power play. Twice in the first few minutes, they hit the post, but they still opened the scoring before the first media timeout when Dougie Hamilton ricocheted a centering pass off the skate of Malcolm Subban and into the net.

The Canes’ lead doubled seven minutes later thanks to Martin Necas’ pinball wizardry, a shot from the blue line that went through a perfect Nino Niederreiter screen, off the post, off Subban’s leg and into the net. Meanwhile, while Alex Nedeljkovic wasn’t called upon to do much, he was bailed out in a big way when he flubbed a clearing attempt and nearly handed the Blackhawks an open net only for the Canes defense to jump on the loose puck.

From the start it was obvious that this was a game between two teams on different tiers. The Blackhawks were content to look for counterattacking chances, while the Hurricanes just kept coming in wave after wave.

Aho then took over the proceedings in the second period, stretching his point streak to eight games. He finally earned the goal that he was denied by the post early in the first period off a picture-perfect 2-on-1 pass from Andrei Svechnikov to increase the Hurricanes’ lead to 3-0 five minutes in, a chance gifted by an ill-advised Connor Murphy sprawling dive in an attempt to slow Svechnikov down. Aho’s second, five minutes later, came on a power play when the Blackhawks had better things to do than cover the opposition’s leading scorer while killing a penalty.

The Blackhawks had seen enough of Subban after Aho’s second goal, although he could hardly be blamed for his teammates’ lackadaisical approach to playing defense. Collin Delia came in and shortly thereafter the Hawks thought they had pulled back a goal shortly when Philipp Kurashev scored. Pius Suter, though, had parked himself in the crease and kicked Nedeljkovic’s legs out of the way, and even in the crapshoot that is video review of goalie interference, it was obvious enough that referees Garrett Rank and Gord Dwyer ruled it no goal within about 15 seconds of looking at the iPad.

The Blackhawks did finally get on the board with 1:25 to go in the second period on an Ian Mitchell one-timer, and the game became closer than it probably should have been when the Hurricanes started letting off the gas midway into the third. It continued in that direction when Alex DeBrincat motored around Jake Bean and turned the jets on to surprise Nedeljkovic with a wrister to make it 4-2 at 14:38.

But Aho finished off his hat trick, outracing Patrick Kane to the puck and tapping it into the empty net with 1:15 remaining. It was the first hat trick at PNC Arena since the pandemic shut everything down last March, and while it was poignant to see the hats again rain down on the ice, it was just as important to see the Hurricanes get two points closer to their first division title since 2006.