Valentin Zykov probably couldn’t have scripted his NHL debut any better.
Sebastian Aho probably couldn’t have scripted his NHL rookie season much better, not from a personal standpoint.
Aho had two goals and an assist and Zykov, playing his first game for the Carolina Hurricanes, scored his first NHL goal Thursday in a 4-3 comeback victory over the New York Rangers at PNC Arena
Zykov, 21, showed little emotion, both when he scored and after the game in posing with the puck. He also was named the team’s player of the game.
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A few feet away in the locker room, Aho did flash a few smiles as he was asked about a rookie season in which the Finnish forward now has 20 goals, including two on the power play in the third period Thursday as the Canes rallied.
“It’s nice,” Aho said, speaking both about the victory and hitting the 20-goal mark. “The first 20 games were pretty tough for me, but I got more comfortable and got more confidence.”
Aho, taken by Carolina in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, did not score until his 14th game as he adjusted to the smaller rinks and tighter spaces of the NHL after playing on the larger surfaces in Finland. His 20 in 64 games made him only the third Canes rookie to reach 20 in a season, joining Jeff Skinner (31 in 2010-11) and Shane Willis (20 in 2000-01).
“You’re seeing a quiet confidence,” said Canes goalie Cam Ward, who made a season-high 40 saves. “He’s a pro already.”
Skinner scored his 21st in the first, and Zykov then had his big moment, going to the front of the net and outmuscling defensemen Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh to get the puck past goalie Antti Raanta. Zykov was recalled Wednesday from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL with forwards Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe out with injuries.
Zykov’s determination and power in front of the crease is something that has been lacking for the Canes much of the season. But the 6-1, 224-pound Russian, who began the game on a line with Jordan Staal and Aho, was more than willing to take the punishment to make the play.
“You have to be in front of the net,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “He’s already smart enough to know that. I think he was fine for his first game. I’m sure he was a bit nervous, but he settled in and gave us good minutes.”
The Canes (27-27-10) trailed 3-2 in the third period after the Rangers (43-23-2), who have a solid hold on an Eastern Conference playoff spot, scored three times on the power play. Chris Kreider scored his 26th in the first period and Mika Zibanejad twice in the second as the Canes kept going to the penalty box and the Canes’ penalty killers – the NHL’s best until the recent trades of Ron Hainsey and Viktor Stalberg – couldn’t get the stops.
The Rangers had been awful on the power play, going 10 games without a power-play score and coming up empty on 26 straight opportunities before Thursday. But Kreider scored with a 5-on-3 advantage in the first, and Zibanejad twice converted in the second period.
Aho answered at 9:04 of the third, taking a pass from Teuvo Teravainen and rifling a long shot past Raanta as Elias Lindhom screened Raanta. The goal was challenged by Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, who claimed goalie interference by Lindholm, but the goal was upheld.
On his second goal, at 12:28 of the third, Aho blasted a shot from low in the right circle after Jordan Staal’s setup pass, Staal’s second assist of the game.
“It was a crazy special teams game for sure,” Peters said. “They got the jump on us. We took some penalties that were unnecessary, but a good answer by the power play in the third period to respond.”
The Rangers pulled Raanta, starting with Henrik Lundqvist out with a lower-body injury, for an extra attacker in the final minute of regulation. The Rangers buzzed around Ward but Derek Ryan blocked a shot and Jordan Staal cleared the puck out of the zone in the final seconds.
“It was a tough challenge against a very good team, and it’s really nice to get a win,” Ward said. “It’s been a while for myself personally.”
Peters, after publicly criticizing the play of Eddie Lack, started the goalie the past two games. Ward’s victory was his 22nd of the season and his first since Feb. 4 against the New York Islanders.
“That’s why we play, to feel good after a win and tonight was really good,” Ward said.
Just ask Aho and Zykov.