Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters says NHL players keep a mental book on the other players in the league – their strengths, their tendencies, their weak spots.
If so, the book on Canes winger Sebastian Aho might include: “Small but strong, don’t underestimate.”
Aho had a pair of goals Wednesday as the Hurricanes topped the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 at PNC Arena, winning for the sixth time in seven games. The first came on a third-period power play, Aho backhanding a rebound past goalie Carey Price for a 2-1 lead, and the second was a late empty-netter that sealed it.
While Aho’s game is built on speed and elusiveness, on stickhandling and playmaking in the offensive zone, the 20-year-old from Finland has some power in his 5-11, 172-pound frame. Among the believers should now be Kyle Okposo of the Buffalo Sabres, a 6-0, 220-pound forward who had Aho muscle up on him along the boards Saturday and play keepaway with the puck as Okposo bounced off him.
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“I remember coach calling him ‘hockey strong’ and that’s obviously pretty accurate with him,” said Canes goalie Cam Ward, now 8-0-1 since Nov. 10. “He’s not a real big stature kind of guy off the ice, but he has real good balance and uses his body very smartly to make it tough to take the puck off him. Tonight, he was pretty dominant.”
Again playing with center Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen, Aho’s line struck quickly as Teravainen ripped a shot from the right circle. It was Teravainen’s first goal in 17 games, giving the Canes a 1-0 lead less than four minutes into the game.
“That’s a big thing for us,” Aho said. “We want good starts, and we were ready.”
It was 1-1 after two periods, but the Canes (17-12-7) recaptured the lead on the power play as Aho closed in on the net, then followed up after Staal and then Elias Lindholm got off shots.
Aho’s empty-netter gave him 10 goals for the season after not scoring in the first 15 games. The Finn is feeling it, just as he did last season after a slow scoring start as a rookie, and he had a game-high five of Carolina’s 36 shots.
“He’s strong,” said Staal, who played his 800th career game. “The kid can play hard, and he gets in the dirty zones and dirty spots on the ice.
“There are guys throughout the league that just on the ice they have that strength, have that balance that makes them hard to knock off the puck. He’s got a great center of gravity. He continues to move his feet and create speed when he has it, so he’s a very tough player to defend.”
Aho, named the game’s first star, had three hits. In the third period, he knocked Habs forward Paul Byron off the puck in the defensive zone and later thumped defenseman Jakub Jerabek on the forecheck.
Asked about playing a more physical game of late – with the Okposo confrontation in mind – Aho said, “I don’t know. Maybe. Of course, I always try to be heavy and play a heavy game.”
Do opponents underestimate him?
“That’s hard to say,” he said. “You should ask them.”
Or ask Peters.
“He’s competitive,” Peters said. “Coaches know more than players because they’ve seen him so much. They’ve seen him internationally, in scouts in the World Junior and the World Championship and seen him be a real good player for a long time.
“Players take a little while to get a book on each other. But I think his book is starting to get around the league.”