Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes looks younger than 19 and speaks softly, but there’s no doubting his hockey game is plenty mature.
The Finnish forward has speed and skill. The rookie plays with unusual savvy. As the season has worn on, he has gotten better, gotten more comfortable, become more a factor.
Aho played his best game of the season Tuesday, scoring his first career hat trick and adding an assist as the Canes topped the Philadelphia Flyers 5-1 before a crowd of 13,577 at PNC Arena. Not since Erik Cole, in December 2001, had Carolina had a rookie score three goals in a game, and Cole coincidentally dropped by the Canes’ practice Monday.
In a game that had a “must-win” feel to it after five regulation losses before the NHL All-Star break, the Canes (22-20-7) took the lead and added to it, playing with good pace while limiting the Flyers to 16 shots — 10 in the third period — and making it a fairly stress-free game for goalie Cam Ward.
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“It was a fun night, a great night for us,” Aho said. “It was a big win. We needed this. It was a good two points.”
Aho, a former second round draft pick by Carolina, had twice scored two goals in a game this season. But this night was special, as he gave the Canes a 2-0 lead after the first period with his first two goals, then scored on the power play in the second to send hats flying on to the ice.
Jeff Skinner scored his first goal in seven games for Carolina and defenseman Justin Faulk, fresh off his All-Star game appearance in Los Angeles, had one of the Canes’ two power-play goals.
After the Canes managed five goals in the five-game slide, losing 3-0 to the Los Angeles Kings in their last game before the break, Canes coach Bill Peters changed up the top three lines. Aho was on Jordan Staal’s line with winger Elias Lindholm and it was a matchup problem for the Flyers.
Philadelphia (25-20-6) had won its last three games before the three-day break and beat the Canes twice in October. More importantly, the Flyers held the second and last wild-card playoff position in the Eastern Conference, with the Canes and other teams in pursuit.
But Aho led the way. His first goal came after he hopped over the boards on a line change, taking a pass from Staal and beating goalie Steve Mason with a backhand-to-forehand move. His second came after he helped force a Flyers turnover, ripping a shot off a Lindholm pass, and the third off another setup pass from Lindholm.
Aho did not score in the first 13 games this season, albeit with a number of near-misses. He now has 15 goals in the past 36 games and become a constant score the Canes badly need.
“That’s pretty impressive and he’s only going to get better,” Skinner said. “He stepped up for us and had a huge game.”
Skinner had a long chat with Peters on the ice after Tuesday’s morning skate, and Peters has stressed the need for the Canes’ better players to produce. Skinner did not have a shot in the loss to the Kings — a first for the winger this season — but was active Tuesday and scored his team-leading 18th in the second period off a Lee Stempniak pass.
Faulk scored on a 5-on-3 power play in the third for a 5-0 lead before Brayden Schenn’s power-play goal ended Ward’s shutout bid.
Aho got a playful tap on the helmet from Canes assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour after his third goal and he later posed for photos in the locker room with a puck memento.
“There really is no ceiling for him,” Staal said. “You can tell he has such great smarts and hands. I’m excited to watch him grow into the player we all want to see, and I have no doubt he can do it.”