Not that anyone was really looking for Sebastian Aho to find another gear, but it turns out he might actually have one.
As good as Aho has been this season, as good as he has been in 2019, this was different. Playing the Hurricanes’ Western Conference doppleganger, a team that like them has somehow come back from the playoff dead to storm up the standings, Aho – and his linemates – practically dragged the Hurricanes to a 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Friday.
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From their opening shifts, the trio of Aho, Nino Niederreiter and Justin Williams were by far the best players on the ice, and were they ever rewarded. They pinned the Blues into their own end early to set the tone, then figured on three goals – Williams with a ripped shot from the top of the left circle, Niederreiter with a pass to set up Justin Faulk at the blue line, Aho with a stunning individual play to steal the puck from Blues goalie Jake Allen and score a short-handed wraparound.
“We had a good start, a nice goal by ‘Willy,’ ” Aho said. “We kind of just built on that.”
Aho, who scored his first goal in eight games last time out against the Los Angeles Kings, drove the play all night. The Blues, not exactly short of firepower themselves, never could find an answer. It was the kind of take-no-prisoners individual performance which Aho has shown here and there, but perhaps never with such leverage at such a pivotal moment.
“He’s doing it all right now, but you can always ask for more,” said Jordan Staal, who scored a pivotal goal of his own Friday. “He always expects more. That’s what you love about him.”
With the Hurricanes in the most tenuous of playoff positions, controlling their destiny but with no margin for error, the Blues were the first of a series of formidable opponents ahead: at the Florida Panthers on Saturday, at the Boston Bruins (in Hartford Whalers gear) on Tuesday, Paul Maurice and the Winnipeg Jets here on Friday, followed by a Nashville-Colorado-Columbus road swing.
The Blues came in with the same 34-23-6 record as the Hurricanes, having rescued their season with a similarly strong 2019 to the Hurricanes, who are now 19-6-1 in the new year.
Aho, obviously, has been a massive part of that, with 33 points in 26 games. So has Niederreiter – since his Jan. 18 debut after arriving in the highway-robbery trade for Victor Rask – with 17 points in 18 games. With Williams closing in on his seventh 20-goal season, that line led the way on a night the Hurricanes lacked Calvin de Haan.
The Hurricanes also got a solid night in net from Curtis McElhinney and a triumphant insurance goal from Staal, his fifth point in three games since returning from a prolonged absence with a concussion – and first goal since Nov. 1 — while Andrei Svechnikov’s empty-netter was his first goal in nine games.
It started with a pregame speech from visitor Evander Holyfield and finished with the champ “knocking out” Jordan Martinook in the first celebrity Storm Surge. Then players posed for photos with Holyfield in the locker room afterward.
“I don’t know how these things happen,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said, “but when they do, it’s a memory.”
But it started with Aho. The Hurricanes weren’t great out of the gate, and he dragged them along until they got into the game, the hallmark of the star who can lead a team to victory simply by example.
To this point, Aho has been that rare player who delivers on expectations almost to the letter. Everything that was promised when he was in Finland has come to reality. His transition to North American hockey was smooth. He became an impact player as a sophomore. He has blossomed into a leaguewide phenomenon this season. All as planned.
“You can’t expect a lot more than what we’ve seen this year,” Brind’Amour said. “Everything we’ve asked him to do, he keeps doing it.”
The question now, and no one has the answer, is where he goes from here. How much more does he have to offer? What is there inside Aho that no one has seen yet?
If Friday is any indication, there is still unexplored potential there, a frightening thought considering just how good he has been this season – and just how much money he has made for himself by deciding to bet on himself and play out the season as a restricted free agent instead of signing an extension over the summer.
There are going to be a lot of zeroes on that check.