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This looks like the season Sebastian Aho becomes a household name

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With a middling 5-3-1 record so far this season, the Carolina Hurricanes haven’t stormed out of the gate yet in 2018-19. Despite some big roster changes and a dramatically different front office, they feel like the same team: promising, puck-hogging, yet at times snake-bitten.

(The goalies? They remain a question mark, yet have been good enough so far.)

For some time, these critical darlings have felt like a herd of solid players. Jordan Staal – a very, very impressive defensive forward with a certain ceiling on offense – felt like a microcosm of the Hurricanes. They lacked that game-breaking star.

It’s dangerously early, but so far, Sebastian Aho looks like he’s going from “the closest thing the Hurricanes have to a star” to … simply, a star.

Through nine games, the 21-year-old center has four goals and 10 assists for 14 points. Two of his goals have been game-winners, including an overtime-clincher.

Aho was incredible in that game, scoring two goals and two assists. His 14 points put him in a tie for seventh place in scoring with the likes of Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane. Yeah.

Now, sure there’s been a bit of puck luck involved. Aho scored his four goals on 24 shots on net, making for a 16.7 shooting percentage that’s likely to fall at least a bit (his career average points to some shooting skill, though, at 13-percent).

That’s not a everyone-doubting-William-Karlsson-type shooting percentage, though. There should be some drop-off, yet Aho’s unlikely to be fool’s gold.

As much as the flashier numbers bring Aho much-deserved attention (three multi-point games already this season), his consistency is as exciting as anything else. The Hurricanes star hasn’t failed to score in a game yet in 2018-19, and he aims to extend his season-opening point streak to 10 games on Friday as the Hurricanes take on their puck-hogging twins, the San Jose Sharks.

It hasn’t taken long for Dougie Hamilton to note that Aho boasts the sort of skill set that really fits with the way the game is played these days.

“He can get going really fast and still make plays while picking up speed,” Hamilton said, via the Athletic’s Craig Custance (sub required). “That’s the dynamic part of his game. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”

Aho’s also getting the green light from new Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

The Finnish forward has been on a steady incline during his short time in the NHL, scoring 24 goals and 49 points in his rookie season (16:47 TOI in 2016-17), while taking another step forward with 29 goals and 65 points as a sophomore (17:55 TOI in 2017-18). Another promising sign for Aho’s climb up the ranks of the elite is that he’s carrying a clearer first-line workload so far in 2018-19, averaging an impressive 19:10 TOI.

Here’s hoping nothing gets in that way, then.

Aho’s possession stats are generally strong, with them only looking iffy relative to his puck-magnet teammates. There’s mild concern over some turbulence regarding his work at center, if he hits a cold streak. As recently as late September, there were rumblings about Aho struggling at center, and maybe face-off wizard Rod Brind’Amour will chafe at the Finn’s hit-or-miss work at draws (46.9-percent winning percentage this season, 46.3 for his career).

Ideally, Brind’Amour would see that the good massively outweighs the bad for Aho, and it’s plausible that the young forward will improve his all-around game with experience. There’s still plenty of time for improvement at 21.

That’s a scary thing for opponents, especially since Aho’s found such early chemistry with Teuvo Teravainen and Micheal Ferland.

One wouldn’t expect Aho to maintain his current 127.5-point pace, yet it’s also more than fair to expect a healthy jump from last season’s 65 points. That leap might just be enough to end Carolina’s nine-year playoff drought.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Playoff Buzzer: Stars dump Predators; Hurricanes push Caps to Game 7

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  • The Stars eliminated the Predators from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, thus Dallas will move on to face the Blues as the first official Round 2 matchup. It wasn’t easy for Dallas in Game 6, though.
  • A back-and-forth game ended with some controversy, but however you feel about a disallowed goal, the Hurricanes beat the Capitals, thus forcing the third and final Game 7 of Round 1.

Hurricanes 5, Capitals 2 (Series tied 3-3, Game 7 Airs on NBCSN; Stream here)

From the score, you might not believe that this was a close game, one that ended in some controversy. It was, though, as the Capitals saw a would-be 3-3 goal disallowed. Not long after that, Justin Williams scored a 4-2 insurance tally, and an empty-netter made it 5-2. This was a well-played contest overall, with Carolina fighting back from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 to eventually win. Alex Ovechkin was prominently involved, including doing a chicken taunt, and then getting kicked out late in the contest while he was enraged about the nongoal.

Stars 2, Predators 1 [OT] (Dallas wins series 4-2, will face St. Louis Blues in Round 2.)

For much of that Round 1 series, the two teams were keeping scoring chances down, and the goalies were stopping almost everything — with a few hiccups. Game 6 was different, as this was a hectic, exciting game with plenty of scoring chances. There were plenty of near-misses, and eventually the Stars got the best of the Predators when John Klingberg scored the OT game-winner. The Central Division champion is out, and now it will be Stars vs. Blues.

By the standards of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this really isn’t an upset … maybe it would be during a normal postseason, though?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Ben Bishop

Both goalies were sharp in what should have been a high-scoring Game 6 between the Stars and Predators, where both netminders needed to make their fair share of point-blank saves. Bishop was tested several times in high-difficulty, high-danger situations, with only Austin Watson‘s goal getting through.

Overall, Bishop finished Game 6 stopping 47 out of 48 shots to help the Stars advance.

Bishop set a high standard for himself during the 2018-19 regular season, particularly down the stretch. Remarkably, he’s performed at that same level during most of the postseason so far, setting the stage for what could be an unexpected goalie duel against Jordan Binnington.

2. Jordan Staal

The Hurricanes needed a team effort to hang with the Capitals and force a Game 7. Justin Williams continues to be a great big-game performer, delivering big hits (including one accidental collision with his own goalie, Petr Mrazek, unfortunately), a key insurance goal, and also a would-be goal that didn’t count because he batted the puck down with a high stick. Dougie Hamilton enjoyed some retribution with an assist and an empty-net goal.

But Staal had arguably the biggest impact. He scored the game-winner on a high-effort play, and Staal also collected an assist on Williams’ important 4-2 tally to make a Capitals comeback unlikely. Staal finished the game +2 and with five hits, so it was a busy night for the underrated two-way center.

3. Pekka Rinne

It probably won’t provide much solace for Rinne, but he enjoyed a strong final performance of 2018-19.

Rinne stopped 49 out of 51 shots on goal in Game 6, giving the Predators a chance to win. Game 6 could have been a monster output for Jamie Benn, what with the power forward firing eight shots on goal, but he finished with zero points largely because of how strong Rinne was. Honestly, Nashville’s defense really failed to find answers for Dallas’ top line other than “Let Pekka make the saves,” and that worked about as well as it could have. It didn’t work well enough for the Predators to force a Game 7, however, so now they must ponder how to remain contenders after another painful playoff finish.

Factoids

  • Justin Williams cringes at “Mr. Game 7,” so maybe we should call him “The Eliminator?” With a goal in Game 6, Williams now has 27 points in 23 games where his teams have faced elimination. His 1.17 points-per-game in those situations ranks as the second-best among active players, behind Patrick Kane‘s 1.26 average.
  • Jordan Staal’s eventual game-winner ranks as the first lead change of the Hurricanes – Capitals series.
  • Hockey fans are spoiled: this is the first time we’ve had three Game 7 matchups in the first round since 2014, according to Sportsnet.

Two Game 7’s on Tuesday!

Game 7: Maple Leafs at Bruins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)
Game 7: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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The Dallas Stars eliminated the Nashville Predators, and thus, we have the first official Round 2 match of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Stars will take on the St. Louis Blues. The Stars moved on to Round 2 by beating the Predators 2-1 in an OT thriller, winning the series 4-2.

For much of 2018-19 (heck, even much of the off-season), it seemed like the Predators and Winnipeg Jets were headed for another series. Nope. Instead, the two lower seeds in the Central Division will square off, and the remarkable thing is that both the Stars and Blues earned it.

Much like other series in this surprising summer of playoff series, the underdogs didn’t win based on goaltending alone. The Stars were impressive in most facets of the game in Round 1, and the stage is set for what could be quite the fascinating bout with the Blues.

But first, the clincher

Game 6 was a low-scoring affair, and while some of that came down to sharp work from Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne, this wasn’t the slow, plodding contest. The Stars and Predators came so close on plenty of chances, whether it was Kyle Turris barely missing the net on a 2-on-1 opportunity, or Esa Lindell‘s attempt catching a post.

Bishop finished with 47 saves, and Rinne made 49. John Klingberg ended up scoring the overtime-winner as the Stars pressed their territorial advantage in OT.

Just about every team that loses a playoff series faces “What if?” questions, and soul-searching about what to fix. For Nashville, the power play is the elephant in the room, and it came trudging in during a pivotal moment of what would be their final game of 2018-19.

In a moment that almost seemed to be scripted out of Hollywood, the pathetically putrid Predators power play received an opportunity to win Game 6 with a man advantage opportunity with 1:53 remaining in regulation. The Predators failed to convert, pushing Nashville to 0-for-4 in Game 6, and 0-for-15 during this series. They wouldn’t end up getting another chance, and you’d have to think the Predators will enter the off-season hoping to address these issues — whether it means changing coaches, personnel, or both.

The Stars and Predators put on a show, but ultimately Dallas came out on top. Hockey fans will have to settle for three Game 7’s to close out Round 1, rather than four.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Controversy swirls as Hurricanes force Game 7 vs. Capitals

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After Game 5, people wondered what Dougie Hamilton was thinking. Game 6 involved a similar question, but this time the hockey world questioned what the officials were thinking.

The Carolina Hurricanes did a tremendous job battling back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in Game 6, ultimately winning 5-2. But, no doubt about it, a disallowed 3-3 goal for the Washington Capitals will hover over this game.

Moments after a 3-3 tie instead moved back to a 3-2 lead for the Hurricanes, Justin Williams put the contest out of reach with a 4-2 goal, then Dougie Hamilton got the next laugh with an empty-netter. The two teams will meet in a Game 7 to decide which team will move on to face the New York Islanders.

Judge that call for yourself, even if it ultimately didn’t stand:

One interesting element is the league’s explanation for the non-goal. Many wondered if this was an “intent to blow” the whistle situation where an official lost sight of the puck, yet the NHL’s Situation Room explained that it was determined that Alex Ovechkin interfered with Petr Mrazek‘s attempt to make a stop.

Ovechkin went from mocking Hamilton with a “chicken” gesture to being tossed from Game 6 after losing his cool (and giving it to the officials) late in the contest.

However you feel about the debated would-be 3-3 goal, it’s possible that the Hurricanes might have forced a Game 7, anyway. Overall, it was an exciting, well-played Game 6, with the teams following scripts we expected going into Round 1. Carolina generally dominated “quantity” in scoring chances and shot attempts, yet the Capitals sometimes had the edge from a “quality” standpoint.

Carolina kept fighting back in Game 6, as the Hurricanes have during this series, and Jordan Staal‘s eventual game-winner captured that scrappy spirit.

While this series has been a mix of nail-biters and blowouts, it just feels right that this one’s going to Game 7, even if the Capitals probably aren’t happy with how it got there.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 7 takes place at Capital One Arena on Wednesday. (Stream here)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.