Canes need All-Star version of Aho to reappear in playoffs

Canes, Aho ready for Game 2

Carolina Hurricanes' Sebastian Aho has gone 15 games without a goal, including Game 1 of the playoff series against the Washington Capitals, and says it's a matter of relaxing and taking advantage of his scoring chances.
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Carolina Hurricanes' Sebastian Aho has gone 15 games without a goal, including Game 1 of the playoff series against the Washington Capitals, and says it's a matter of relaxing and taking advantage of his scoring chances.

Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho now has gone 15 games without a goal but believes he has a solution.

“Maybe just a little bit relax,” he said Friday after a team practice at Capital One Arena.

Relax? In the playoffs? There is no relaxation in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when good scoring chances can be scarce, goals precious and defenders are looking to mash your face into the glass while collecting the puck.

Aho took his share of the rough stuff Thursday as the Canes dropped Game 1 to the Washington Capitals, often facing the defensive pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov and taking a few pops from Niskanen along the way. While playing 26 minutes in the 4-2 loss, Aho had a mostly quiet night with two shots on goal as the Canes’ top line was kept in check, forcing coach Rod Brind’Amour to shake up his lines during the game.

Washington Capitals center Lars Eller, right, of Denmark, skates with the puck against Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho, left, of Finland, during the second period of Game 1 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series, Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Washington. Nick Wass AP

The Canes need Aho being Aho, badly. They lean on the 21-year-old Finn extensively -- at even strength, on the power play, on the penalty kill. He’s one of the NHL’s best young players, named to the Metropolitan Division team in the NHL All Star Game this season, but now playing on the sport’s biggest stage.

Washington isn’t lacking scorers. Alex Ovechkin had a league-best 51 goals in the regular season and added another on the power play in the playoff opener. Six other other Caps players had more than 20, and one of those six, center Nicklas Backstrom, scored twice on Thursday.

Aho led the Canes with 30 goals but last scored March 9 in a road game against the Nashville Predators. He has since had 37 shots on net but is 0-for-37. That’s a scoring slump in anyone’s eyes, but Aho said he wouldn’t stress too much over it -- thus, the relaxation comment.

“I’ve had a lot of scoring chances,” Aho said. “I don’t need to put so much pressure ... you know, when you get the chance put it in the net and not worry about it. I’ve been producing the chances the same way.”

For Aho, like several of his teammates, the playoff game Thursday was his first. He was 11 years old, learning the finer points of the game in Finland, when the Canes last put in a playoff appearance in 2009, when they lost the first game in each of their first two series ,against New Jersey and Boston, before winning both in seven games.

Aho said he wasn’t nervous.

“I was excited,” he said. “It was definitely a different feeling before that game. There was maybe a little more emotion in the game but other than that pretty much the same as any other.”

Brind’Amour liked the way most of his players handled the playoff game and the raucous setting at Capital One Arena, where Caps fans came to again celebrate the 2018 Stanley Cup run while hoping to see them take a first step toward a repeat. Brind’Amour didn’t like his special teams -- the Canes allowed two power-play goals while going 0-3 on the power play -- but didn’t see much in the way of playoff jitters.

“I may have overthought that myself,” he said Friday. “You watch the first 10 minutes and I expected that to be different because so many guys hadn’t played in this big a moment. I think it actually helped us that we don’t have a lot of guys who have played on this stage because they don’t know it’s supposed to be different. They just went out and played their game and I was pleasantly surprised with that.”

Defenseman Brett Pesce was one of those who just went out and played. It was his first playoff game, when the confines of the rink can seem smaller and the noise level higher, but it was still hockey.

“It was physical, it’s a little bit faster, but all in all it was a lot of fun,” Pesce said.

Pesce was on the ice when the Caps scored on their first power play in the first period, allowing Backstrom to go unchecked near the crease. Pesce also was on the ice when the Canes’ Andrei Svechnikov scored the first of his two goals in the third period as the Canes made a push and made it a 3-2 game that made things a lot more tense.

The Canes trailed 3-0 after the first but Pesce said the feeling in the locker room was more upbeat than somber. It was somber after the game, he said, in that the Canes believed they were close to a comeback win.

“I thought we were on ‘em in the first but they just capitalized on a few key bounces and our mistakes,” he said. “We stuck to our game plan and we were confident. We knew we weren’t out of it and we came back.”

That’s how the Canes handled the regular season, bouncing back from a dismal December when it appeared they might be out of playoff contention.

“We’re used to adversity,” Pesce said. “Where we came from, how we got here is pretty amazing to me. We believe in our team.”

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.