Luke DeCock

Still a chance for Aho to turn this series around

Hurricanes fall to Capitals in Game 5

Check out photos from game 5 of the Carolina Hurricanes NHL Stanley Cup playoff game against the Washington Capitals Saturday night, April 20, 2019.
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Check out photos from game 5 of the Carolina Hurricanes NHL Stanley Cup playoff game against the Washington Capitals Saturday night, April 20, 2019.

If Sebastian Aho is the player the Carolina Hurricanes think he can be — think he is, now — then this is the time for him to show that. If he’s really a star, it’s time for him to be a star. They’re about to pay him to be a franchise player, and he needs to be as much of one in game No. 83 as he is in game No. 82.

Throughout this playoff series, having run its course to where the Hurricanes now face elimination, Aho hasn’t been anywhere near the dominant, aggressive, attacking player he has shown he can be.

CANESPRAC-NE-041019-RTW23.JPG
Carolina Hurricanes’ coach Rod Brind’Amour talks with Nino Niederreiter (21), Justin Faulk (27), Sebastian Aho (20), Teuvo Teravainen (86) and Justin Williams (14) during practice on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The Hurricanes have done everything possible to get Aho going, pushing for favorable matchups at home, putting Teuvo Teravainen back on his line. Nothing has worked. He scored one goal from behind the goal line, set up another with a nice play at the blue line, and that’s about it. There’s no time and no space, and he hasn’t been able to make any for himself.

Now that the Hurricanes are down to their last stand, down 3-2 to the Washington Capitals and facing what may be their final home appearance of the season in Game 6 on Monday, Aho’s about out of time. It’s now or never.

“I want to win,” Aho said. “To win, it takes all of us to play our best games, If I can score some goals or whatever, obviously I’ll be happy, but there’s many other things to the game. You have to do it right.”

Are you getting frustrated?

“No.”

Is it hard to fight against that?

“No.”

No one questions Aho’s drive or ability or competitiveness, but he hasn’t been able to find any space to maneuver. Players of his caliber are expected to find ways to impose themselves on the game, not the other way around.

“I think he has another gear,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Obviously, our best players have to be a little more impactful than another night. I don’t think he has to be a superstar, that’s for sure.”

On a team without superstars, he’s the closest thing the Hurricanes have. There’s no shame in being outplayed by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and the Hurricanes don’t need Aho to play like they can, but they need Aho to play like he can.

After spending six months answering every possible question about this game – and putting himself in position, with 30 goals and 83 points, for a massive new contract this summer – his postseason performance has raised big new questions: whether he’s strong enough to be the same player in the closer checking of the playoffs, and whether his significant international commitments to Finland the past three years, combined with his increased role at center this season, have left him worn down to a nub.

It’s not just Aho. The Hurricanes have had too many impact players make too little of an impact. Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter and Justin Williams haven’t been any better. The power play, collectively, has been a disaster when it matters most.

But if the Hurricanes are going to pay Aho like a star, and that’s where things are headed this summer, they need him to play like one in the spring.

Maybe this is where playing center instead of left wing finally caught up with him, especially in these high-intensity circumstances. If that’s the case, that’s the Hurricanes’ problem as much as it is Aho’s. But he still has a chance, Monday and perhaps beyond, to exert an influence on this series before it’s too late.

Eric Staal wasn’t having the best playoff series of his life through five games against the New Jersey Devils in 2009 as the Hurricanes faced elimination. He had two goals and no assists, his line stagnant. He had to do more, and he knew it.

Staal then scored three goals and added two assists in the next two games, both Carolina wins, including the series-winner on the road in Game 7. The Hurricanes needed him to carry them, and he did. Aho is capable of the same.

Aho, having proven so much this season, suddenly finds himself with everything to prove all over again, and the Hurricanes with everything to lose.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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