Sebastian Aho says he has made a habit of going on NHL.com each morning to check out the league highlights from the night before.
“I like to watch each day and see how the best players play,” Aho said.
The Carolina Hurricanes rookie could have seen highlights of himself Friday morning on the website – scroll to the “Performance Moment of the Night.” His two power-play goals Thursday, on a three-point night, gave the Finnish forward 20 goals for the season while spurring the Canes to a 4-3 comeback victory over the New York Rangers at PNC Arena.
Aho, 19, also had his first career hat trick Jan. 31 against the Philadelphia Flyers. One would think it was exciting for him to relive those highlights from that special game.
“No,” Aho said, smiling. “I did not watch that.”
It’s not surprising. In a season in which rookie forwards Auston Matthews of Toronto and Patrik Laine of Winnipeg have been smothered with attention, certainly on NHL.com, Aho has quietly gone about his business, scoring 20 goals and collecting 18 assists. He has a team-best four game-winning goals and his minus-1 plus/minus rating is among the best for the Canes’ forwards.
“I would hope everybody believes Sebastian Aho is the real deal,” general manager Ron Francis said.
While Aho had the two power-play scores Thursday, it was his hustle on a penalty-kill unit in the first period that shifted some momentum the Canes’ way. The Rangers had taken a 1-0 lead on a 5-on-3 power play and were looking to add another score, but Aho shook loose on a shorthanded breakaway that forced a penalty against the Rangers.
“His hockey sense is elite, his compete is very high, his skill you can see on display,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “He impacts the game in multiple ways.”
After Aho’s shorthanded chance, the Canes took a 2-1 lead on Jeff Skinner’s 21st of the season and a goal by rookie forward Valentin Zykov, who was making his NHL debut. Zykov, strongly built at 6-1 and 224 pounds, fought past Rangers D-men Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh to poke the puck past goalie Antti Raanta.
The Rangers bounced back with a couple of power-play goals by Mika Zibanejad in the second, but two Rangers penalties in the third were decisive. Aho scored on a long outside shot as Elias Lindholm screened Raanta, then from the bottom of the right circle at 12:28 of the period off a Jordan Staal pass.
Only two other Canes players have scored 20 goals as a rookie – Jeff Skinner, who had 31 in 2010-11 when he won the Calder Trophy at age 18, and Shane Willis with 20 in 2000-01. Aho, who played last season for Karpat in SM-liiga, the Finnish Elite League, did not get his first NHL goal until the 14th game, although the chances were there.
“There are some things you have to learn,” Aho said “Everything here was new for me – new language, new country, new team.”
The NHL rinks have smaller playing surfaces than those in Finland. Aho is a good skater and a slippery type at 5-11 and 180 pounds, able to elude the big hits, but has had to make plays in tighter spaces in the NHL.
“You can’t prepare for everything before you come here,” Aho said. “I think I have gotten used to it pretty fast. After 20 games I got more comfortable and more confidence and was able to play my game.”
Aho had seven goals and two assists, including the hat trick, in the 10 games before the Canes’ five-day bye week in February. He said he spent a couple of days in Charlotte with his girlfriend during the break, relaxing, but did get in some conditioning work.
But Aho wasn’t as sharp in the first 10 games after the break. Neither were the Canes. Before Thursday, he had one goal and two assists as the Canes went 2-5-3.
“Before the bye week I think I played pretty good and felt pretty good,” Aho said. “I think the timing was bad, but that’s not an excuse. I did get enough rest so that I can play the rest of the season and feel good.”
When the Canes selected Aho in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, several scouts said Carolina may have gotten a player with first-round talent. It appears they have.
“He’s a very quiet kid, a very humble kid,” Canes goalie Cam Ward said. “Kudos to his parents for his upbringing, to be that mature at his age in this league. He’s a pro already.”
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS AT CAROLINA HURRICANES
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh.