Even Sebastian Aho admitted that his goal Tuesday night, a mid-distance slapper through traffic, may have had a touch of luck about it. No one was complaining, certainly not Aho, who was just happy to be back on the ice a mere 16 days after a cataclysmic hit that looked like it could have ended his season.
“I’ll take those ones,” the Carolina Hurricanes forward said after the 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
At this point, Hurricanes fans have all heard the stories about Aho’s competitive fire, toughness and strength. His recovery managed to embody all of them, getting hit in the head and knee-to-knee coming across the middle on Jan. 14, woozily dragging his left leg off the ice, only to return to combat two improbable weeks later.
Privately, some in the Hurricanes organization expressed concern that Aho was returning too quickly – but with the caveat that no one could (or wanted to) stop him anyway. The player his coaches call “Sea Bass” and his teammates call “Fishy” isn’t the kind to sit around any longer than necessary, even if he should. When he passed his concussion test Monday, he was playing, no matter how his knee may have felt.
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“It was awesome to see him out there,” Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said. “I was impressed with the way that he played and the way that he handled himself when he was injured, too. I assumed he was going to be out longer. Here we are. He wanted to be out there, he wanted to play, he wants to be an impact player and we need him out there.”
Aho wasn’t at full speed in the first period – “a little rusty,” he said – and maybe not in the second either. By the third, there was no question he was back to his usual standards.
And those are high: at 20, he’s already the team’s most complete player at both ends of the ice, skilled and physical, the rare player who measures up to his scouting report in every way. He’s ticketed for stardom, and a leadership role on this team, and his absence served to underline his value.
“That’s the type of player he is,” Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner said. “He can break a game open. We were looking for that spark. Obviously that was a big goal there for us. It was nice to have him back.”
The only question about Aho – beyond whether he can stay healthy the way he plays, although this latest incident bodes well for his durability – is whether he’s going to be a high-end, two-way winger or an undersized top-six center, and it’s impossible to answer now, although there’s something tantalizing about a team built around Aho and Martin Necas down the middle.
This season can still go any number of ways for the Hurricanes, but without Aho it was almost certain to go down the tubes, so his recovery reopens the most positive pathways. Despite not scoring a goal until Nov. 13 and the four games he just missed, he’s still on pace for 27 goals, and given that slow start could and probably should easily clear the 30-goal mark.
Tuesday’s goal moved him one closer to that point – and at a time the Hurricanes desperately needed it. Between his goal and his hustle to return, Tuesday showed exactly what makes Aho so special.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock