During a practice drill Tuesday at PNC Arena, Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho got off three good shots from the slot in rapid succession.
Goalie Scott Darling made clean saves on the first and third shots, and the second clanged off the crossbar. Call it a 10-second microcosm of Aho’s season.
In the Canes’ first 10 games, Aho has had 28 shots on goal and 54 total shot attempts. Nothing has gone in the net. Off the posts, off the crossbar, blocked, off goalie pads and paddles, but not in. Not past an opposing goalie.
If that bothers Aho, it doesn’t show. Not outwardly. The Finn went through a similar stretch a year ago at the beginning of his rookie season in the NHL, not scoring in the first 13 games, yet he finished with 24 goals, second only to Jeff Skinner’s 37 on the Canes.
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“I think I’ve played better and better every day, and I think the goals are coming,” Aho said Tuesday. “I just need to stay positive. Just relax my game. Obviously, work hard, but still when I get the chances just relax.”
Some would say it might be hard to relax when you’re 10 games into a season, counted on to score and still seeking that first one. But Aho, 20, said goal-scoring is just one aspect of his game.
“I try to help this team win in other ways, too,” he said. “I try to play a good two-way game and make some plays for my linemates, too.”
Aho has five assists, second to Justin Williams’ seven in the Canes’ 4-4-2 start. In Sunday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Anaheim, he set up Jordan Staal for a tying goal in the second period, sweeping behind the Ducks’ net with the puck for a wraparound, only to make a nice pass through the crease to an open Staal.
Later, with the game in overtime, Aho was at the end of a long shift of three-on-three play when he shook free on a breakaway, the game on his stick. Waiting for him was Ducks goalie Ryan Miller, the old pro.
“Actually, I felt pretty good,” Aho said. “I had some energy left. There was a good chance to score. I pretty much did what I wanted to do. But …”
But Miller made the stop on Aho’s forehand shot. Miller also stopped Aho to end the shootout, sealing the Ducks’ victory.
Canes assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour, who works with the forwards, said that in Aho’s case, probably the less said the better.
“You don’t make a big deal about it,” Brind’Amour said. “He had good chances the other night. There’s not much more you can do, and the worst you can do is all of a sudden starting piling on and like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to score.’
“It’s more, ‘Relax, play your game.’ The effort’s there.”
A year ago, Aho’s first two NHL goals came in the Canes’ 14th game, against the Washington Capitals in a 5-1 win. His first NHL hat trick came Jan. 31 against the Philadelphia Flyers at PNC Arena – the hats thrown on the ice were collected and waiting in his locker stall after the next practice – and he had three other two-goal games.
Aho, a smaller player at 5-11 who has good core strength, led the Canes in power-play points (17) and had four game-winning goals. His 49 points were second to Skinner’s 63 and fifth among NHL rookies.
“I keep telling him to make plays,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s a playmaker first, and you don’t want to change his game. Keep playing his game, and it will turn.”
While Canes coach Bill Peters has juggled some lines this season, he has kept Aho at left wing on Staal’s line opposite right winger Elias Lindholm. Drafted as a center, Peters intends to keep Aho on the wing for a second season.
“The chances are there. It’s going to come,” Peters said.
Aho said he has videos made of all his shifts in a game, for closer inspection. It gives him a better feel, a different look, at all that happened on the ice, offensive chances he might have missed and other areas he needs to improve.
What does he see?
“The last few games, I’ve had many scoring chances,” Aho said. “I just need to put it in and help our team win some more. It’s just a matter of time. They’re going to go in.”
Carolina Hurricanes at Colorado Avalanche
When: Thursday, 9 p.m.
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver.