Watching Sebastian Aho play throughout the Carolina Hurricanes series against the New York Rangers, you might forget the NHL took a four-month break. Call it mid-season form, or chalk it up to the added intensity that comes with playoff hockey, but Aho’s dominance in the Hurricanes’ three-game sweep of the Rangers was some of the best hockey he’s played in his career.
The Hurricanes secured the playoff-qualifying series with Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, on the back of two goals and an assist from Aho.
As the first team to advance, the Hurricanes will now have to wait for the seven other qualifier series to wrap up before they take the ice for the official Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Aho Making an Early Case for MVP
Is pre-Round 1 too early to talk about playoff MVP? There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a guy who’s been as outstanding as Aho has through this first week of play.
Carolina’s top line of Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov were unstoppable throughout the series, contributing to eight of the Hurricanes’ 11 goals (73 percent). Aho had a total of three goals and five assists for eight points in just three games. He currently sits atop the league in playoff scoring.
For the Finnish center, he’s just picking up where he left off last year. Dating back to last season, he now has 20 points in 18 career playoff games.
Aho quickly went to work in Game 1, helping set up the first goal of the series, a goal by Jaccob Slavin one minute into the first period. In Game 2, he assisted on all three goals by Svechnikov, who scored the first hat trick in Hurricanes playoff history.
Aho’s stat line speaks for itself, but there are so many little things he does well that often go unnoticed. Teravainen scored a huge goal in Game 3 with a nifty forehand-to-backhand move, but the puck never would have gotten to him if it wasn’t for a subtle play by Aho.
As the puck slides out into the slot, Aho quickly reacts to lift the stick of Rangers forward Phil Di Giuseppe, who was ready to intercept, allowing the puck to slip through to Teravainen.
Aho could have tried to force the puck back towards the net, but he had the awareness to recognize Teravainen was lurking behind him in a perfect scoring position.
It’s not necessarily what you’d call a defensive play, but it’s a perfect example of how the 23-year-old has improved his play without the puck since Rod Brind’Amour took over as head coach.
Aho was fourth in the NHL in takeaways this season with 71. He averaged 1:48 of shorthanded time-on-ice, and finished tied for first with four shorthanded goals. It’s not often your top scorer is one of your top defenders as well, but that well-roundedness, leadership, and compete level is exactly why Aho is invaluable to this team.
Aho Leads, the Hurricanes Follow
Hockey coaches clamor for the elite stick-checking and anticipation skills Aho has, but most fans prefer the flavor of a highlight-reel goal, and Aho delivered a beautiful one to give the Hurricanes a 3-1 lead with 10 minutes remaining in Game 3.
With a head of steam, Aho is able to outwork Jacob Trouba, a 6-foot-3, 209-pound defenseman, strip him of the puck, dangle Tony DeAngelo out of his shorts, and roof it past Igor Shesterkin with a powerful backhander.
Hurricanes Playing “Brind’Amour Hockey”
Meanwhile, the Rangers’ star forwards were stymied by the pure effort and hustle of the Hurricanes. Even without top-four defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce, the Hurricanes’ blue line held up against one of the league’s highest-scoring teams.
Smothered by relentless speed and tenacious forechecking, the Rangers’ young defense corps constantly mismanaged the puck, leading to turnovers and errant passes that allowed the Hurricanes to re-gain possession. That played right into their hands, as they’re one of the league’s most dominant puck possession teams.
The Hurricanes were back to their old ways of taking too many penalties, but their penalty kill was stellar – they killed off 13 of 14 Ranger power plays.
Artemi Panarin, a Hart Trophy nominee, was limited to just two points and was largely invisible throughout the series. Mika Zibanejad, who scored a league-leading 0.71 goals per game during the regular season, only contributed one goal and one assist.
Mrazek & Reimer Out-duel Lundqvist & Shesterkin
With three games scheduled in the first four days of play, it was expected that we’d see both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer in net for the Hurricanes. Mrazek got the Game 1 start as expected, but Reimer was the goalie who closed out the series Tuesday with a spectacular 37-save performance.
The losses were no fault of Rangers goalies Henrik Lundqvist or Shesterkin – they gave their team a chance. But Mrazek and Reimer were spectacular, and the Rangers just didn’t generate enough offense or chances to overwhelm them. When they were attacking furiously for the first two periods of Game 3, Reimer came up huge.
With the game tied 1-1, Reimer was peppered with a flurry of shots from the Rangers, and finished off the whirlwind sequence with an unbelievable goal-line paddle save.
Reimer was a stone wall for 60 minutes, but is it enough to go back to him in Game 1 of the upcoming Round 1 series? Mrazek, who backstopped the Hurricanes in Games 1 and 2, was impressive as well – he sports a .940 save percentage and 1.50 goals-against average.
That will be one of the big questions as the Hurricanes wait for their Round 1 opponent to be determined – the other will be regarding Hamilton’s status.
Sami Was Steady, But Healthy Hamilton Would Be Better
Sami Vatanen had a steady series in Hamilton’s usual spot on the No. 1 pairing beside Jaccob Slavin, and on the No 1. power play unit, chipping in three assists in three games. While Hamilton is still “unfit” to play, the Hurricanes could be off for a week – or longer – and that would give him extra time to recover and get back into game shape.
With seven NHL defensemen at the ready, the addition of a healthy Hamilton will give the Hurricanes an even more powerful defense core.
Pesce is recovering from March shoulder surgery, and is still several weeks from being available.
The ‘Canes will face either the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers, or Washington Capitals in the first official round of playoff action.