A day after the Carolina Hurricanes clinched their first playoff berth since 2009, they were back on the ice, back at work.
There is still one regular-season game to be played. With Rod Brind’Amour as coach, that meant a practice Friday at Raleigh Center Ice before the team flight to Philadelphia, where the Canes will face the Flyers on Saturday night.
“It’s kind of tough,” Brind’Amour said. “It was such an emotional night last night. You play a whole bunch of games and we keep talking about it’s always the ‘next one.’ Now we’ve got to regroup and try to find a way to win the next one.”
Beating the New Jersey Devils 3-1 Thursday at PNC Arena, the Canes were able to secure an Eastern Conference playoff spot when the Montreal Canadiens lost in Washington to the Capitals. But their opponent in the playoffs won’t be determined until all the games are played, and a win or a loss against the Flyers can make a difference.
“It’s going to be tough,” Brind’Amour said. “We put so much emotional and mental stress into this year. But I know the guys will play hard and the good news is no matter what happens we’re still playing.”
During the practice, Sebastian Aho centered a line with Nino Niederreiter on the left wing and Saku Maenalanen on the right side, subbing in for the absent Justin Williams. Williams, according to Brind’Amour, was taking a “maintenance day.”
Asked if 37-year-olds need maintenance days, Brind’Amour smiled and said, “Apparently. I don’t remember having those.”
Twenty-one year olds apparently don’t need them. Not Aho. While the Finn has not appeared completely healthy since a hard collision with Niederreiter on the ice in the March 21 game against Tampa Bay, Aho has not missed a game or practice. Nor will he discuss whether he’s injured or not.
“No comments, I guess,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything. I don’t have any big injuries or anything.”
What Aho will talk about has been another one of those slightly baffling stretches where he can’t seem to put the puck in the net. Aho, an NHL All-Star this season, has a career-high 30 goals but now has gone 13 straight games without one despite taking 32 shots on goal.
In Thursday’s game, Aho was looking at a lot of open net in the first period but had Devils goalie Cory Schneider stick out his left pad for the stop. Later, Aho had a breakaway, only to see the puck slide just wide of the post.
“As long as we win it does not matter,” Aho said. “I’m sure if we lose, it would get me frustrated but I think I’ve played pretty well. I’ve played the same way. I just haven’t been able to score. I’ve had scoring chances.
“It’s all about wins this time of year.”
Aho has been named the team’s most valuable player for the 2018-19 season by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. That’s two years in a row. With 30 goals and 53 assists, he has been the Canes’ leading scorer and has a plus-25 rating.
Aho earned the primary assist Thursday on Justin Faulk’s power-play goal that gave the Canes a 2-1 lead and ultimately was the goal that sent the Canes back to the playoffs.
“A lot’s being made about him not scoring but he’s still on the scoresheet,” Brind’Amour said, “If he’s not scoring and we’re still winning, that’s pretty good. He’s going to put the puck in the net. He gets too many chances. I’m not stressing about that one bit.”
Aho has played for Finland in major international competitions. He scored an overtime goal, at 17, that won his Finnish team the league championship. Now he’s going to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time.
“I’m sure it will have a lot of emotion and hard battles,” he said. “Obviously we’re happy to be going but we have one game left in the regular season and we want to win that one, too. We want to finish right.”