Hours before making his NHL debut Thursday for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Winnipeg Jets, Sebastian Aho said he was excited.
In fact, if you were close enough to the 19-year-old forward and listened closely, you could hear him say it.
“I’m excited,” he said in a low, flat tone.
Told he didn’t sound very excited, Aho said it again, “I’m excited.” Although not any louder, or with any hint of expression.
A few feet away, the Canes’ Teuvo Teravainen was smiling.
“I think he’s pretty excited, but I don’t know if he shows that,” Teravainen said, agreeing it might be a Finnish thing.
“But it’s his first NHL game and that’s always exciting,” Teravainen said.
Aho’s family was not at the game Thursday at Winnipeg. He said they would wait and come to the United States for the Canes’ home opener, Oct. 28 against the New York Rangers.
But there was a Finnish friend at the game — Patrik Laine of the Jets.
Laine’s arrival in Winnipeg this year has been much welcomed and much discussed. After the Toronto Maple Leafs made Auston Matthews the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Jets chose Laine, believing they had gotten a forward whose skill could instantly help the team on the ice and whose potential was enticing for the franchise.
Aho said Thursday his goals for this season were to “have fun, play well and try to play in the NHL all year.” But given his rapid development the past few years, the Canes’ former second-round pick also has caused excitement, and Canes coach Bill Peters calls him “an important piece.”
Laine, Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi — the fourth overall pick in the ’16 draft by Edmonton — formed a dynamic line that helped Finland win the 2016 World Junior Championship in Helsinki, earning the three teenagers an even higher hockey profile in their home country. Aho and Laine again were on a line, with Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, in the World Cup of Hockey.
“He’s really smart,” Laine said of Aho. “He knows where he has to be and he can score also, obviously. He’s so smart, he can read the game so well. He can make some smart passes. He’s such a good playmaker.”
Laine’s comments also were made after Thursday’s morning skate at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre. Aho later said it was a “pretty cool thing” that both were making their NHL debuts in the same game. Asked Laine’s strength as a player, he simply said, “His shot.”
Hours later, Laine’s big shot on the power play provided a key goal for the Jets, pulling them within 4-3 after the Canes had built a 4-1 lead in the third period.
In his NHL debut, Laine had his first NHL goal. Aho also got his first NHL point, with an assist on the Victor Rask goal that made it 4-1.
Aho’s first game included moments that were good and some not-so-good. He had 14:48 of ice time, with 4:24 on the power play, and had the first Canes penalty of the season. He had two shots on net, one missed shot and had three shots blocked.
With two seconds left in regulation, Aho had the puck on the right wing and a good offensive look. But Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot managed to get a piece of the shot.
Imagine if Aho had blasted in the winner just before the horn. As it was, the Jets won in overtime 5-4. The Canes will try again Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks.
Teravainen said he was the same age as Aho when he played his first NHL game – for the Chicago Blackhawks in March 2014, in a 4-2 victory over the Dallas Stars. Teravainen, then 19, didn’t have a point but won all seven of his faceoffs.
“I didn’t do too many stupid things on the ice, so it was all right,” Teravainen said with another smile. “It went all right, and we won the game.”
That’s probably the best assessment of Aho’s NHL debut — it was all right. His first goal, and first win in the NHL, will have to come later.
Hurricanes at Canucks
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Rogers Arena, Vancouver