Hockey’s fabulous present and abundantly rich future in Connor McDavid and Sebastian Aho was on full display Friday night. The Edmonton Oilers, third place in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division with 64 points, slid into Raleigh’s PNC Arena to take on the Carolina Hurricanes, currently sixth in the Wild Card standings with 51 points, seven behind the Philadelphia Flyers who hold the second wild card spot.
All 12,512 pairs of eyes were keenly focused on the Oilers’ young star, McDavid. An equal number were also dialed in on the Hurricanes’ Aho who was fresh off an offensive outburst Tuesday night against the Flyers. McDavid is the name in lights, but Aho’s star is beginning to shine.
Facing each other at opposite ends of the ice were two of this season’s workhorses. Identical names and nearly identical number of games played made the battle between Cam Ward and Cam Talbot all the more compelling. Talbot was starting for the 48th time this season, Ward for the 43rd. Neither have balked at being relied upon by their teams so much this season.
The Hurricanes started the game playing reasonably well, but were not as crisp on either end of the ice as they were Tuesday night against the Flyers. Jordan Staal scores at 11:36 assists to Elias Lindholm and Jaccob Slavin, giving the ‘Canes the early 1-0 lead.
A beautifully executed tic-tac-toe example of passing, and more importantly, Staal in front of the net ready to knock it in past Talbot. Lindholm picked up his 18th assist of the season, and now has points in four of the last five games in which he has played.
Ward played well throughout the night, with this save in the first period against a shot from the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl being indicative of his game to come. He finished the night saving 24 of 25 shots.
A moment of concern came up three minutes later when the Hurricanes’ Victor Stalberg hit the Oilers’ Matt Benning hard at 14:36. It wasn’t a dirty hit, but rather, an unavoidable collision behind the Oilers’ net. Benning stayed on the ice longer than was comfortable for those watching and received nice applause when he got up and skated off the ice, bloody nose and all.
Bruce McCurdy wrote about the game and Benning at edmontonjournal.com, “To make matters worse, Edmonton lost defenceman Matt Benning to an apparent broken nose if not concussion in the first period.” The determination as to whether or not Benning will be out with a concussion will be forthcoming.
Advantage McDavid and Talbot
At 8:04 in the second period McDavid did what McDavid does. In somewhat of a fluke play, McDavid broke his stick, went to the bench to retrieve a new one, and off into the play he went. Because of where he happened to be, the ‘Canes allowed him to get behind them and he went one-on-one with Ward, and the result was predictable.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) February 4, 2017
The top shelf goal by McDavid was his 18th of the season. It would prove to be the only time he would light the lamp, however, as the Hurricanes’ defense choked out him and the rest of the Oilers throughout the rest of the second and third periods.
Talbot played well, as this save against the Hurricanes’ Jeff Skinner illustrates:
Talbot finished the night saving 21 of 23 shots.
Advantage Aho and Ward
The Oilers commited a penalty at the start of the third period and the ‘Canes went on the power play. At 1:48, Aho blasted a shot that grazed the skate of Oscar Klefborn and scored the go-ahead goal.
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) February 4, 2017
It was the result of great teamwork from the ‘Canes’ power play unit, as Justin Faulk and Teuvo Teravainen got the assists. The 19-year-old did not disappoint, and did not seem at all intimated by being in a game with McDavid. The poise that this rookie continues to demonstrate is amazing, and points to a very high ceiling in his future.
After the game I asked Aho about loading up to blast the shot and if he was confident it was going to go in. Aho said, “I don’t know, I just try to shoot the puck.”
He is shooting the puck well and if he continues to do so, the Hurricanes will be likely in the majority of games they play going forward.
The Hurricanes’ defense has been stout in their past two games. They kept the Flyers from mounting any real offense and did the same to McDavid and the Oilers Friday night. I asked head coach Bill Peters after the game if he feels like the defense is coming along. Peters said, “It’s getting better, getting better. We’re getting better as a team for sure. We’re in a very important stretch as everybody knows.”
Peters said that the special teams were the difference. The penalty kill went three-for-three and the power play went one-for-one. The ‘Canes lead the NHL in penalty kill percentage and it is a huge factor in keeping them in games. The pair of Brett Pesce and Slavin have been outstanding all season long, and this young team is maturing more every night out.
I asked Staal about the “loose but focused” feel that the young players seem to display on the ice. Staal said,
“It is a good group. It’s a talented group, it’s a young group. I think that’s part of it. You can tell these guys are close, they’re together a lot. There’s only a few guys with kids and stuff like that. I’ve been on a young team. It’s fun hanging out every day and playing in the NHL. It makes for a fun atmosphere in the room.”
I asked Staal if he was starting to feel old yet and he laughed and said, “A little bit, yeah. That’s why I got the haircut.”
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.