RALEIGH — It was Jeff Skinner’s first game against the Carolina Hurricanes and also the first NHL matchup between last summer’s first and second overall picks, Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov.
But make no mistake: It was Sebastian Aho Night.
The Hurricanes leading scorer left no doubt who the new face of the franchise is with Skinner having moved on, scoring twice in the second period and finishing plus-4 in a head-to-head matchup with Skinner and Sabres linemate Jack Eichel in Carolina’s 4-3 win Friday in front of 17,199 at PNC Arena.
“They’re a top line and we’re kind of our top line, so it was going to get a head-to-head setup, and I think we did pretty good,” Aho said following Carolina’s sixth win in seven games. The lone loss came Thursday night in Tampa Bay, where the Hurricanes relinquished a lead in the third period and left with no points.
That wasn’t happening again.
With the game tied 2-2 after the team’s exchanged goals 30 seconds apart early in the second, Aho seized control for the Hurricanes.
First, Aho created space in the corner and backhanded a pass to Teuvo Teravainen. The puck went in off Dahlin to make it 3-2 at 5:42 of the middle frame.
Aho added another less than seven minutes later, shoveling a rebound chance wide but collecting the puck and whipping a wraparound attempt toward the net that ricocheted in off Sabres goalie Carter Hutton to push the lead to two.
“We decided, based on a little prescout thing, that we’d try to get our best players out against their best line tonight,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said of matching the Aho line against Eichel and Skinner. “To kind of go chance-for-chance and see how it worked out. We got lucky — we got a couple bounces to go our way for it.”
That line also got the game’s first goal.
On the shift after the Hurricanes celebrated Skinner’s eight years with the franchise with a video tribute, Micheal Ferland, reunited with Aho and Teravainen, took a seemingly harmless shot from the left wing. But Hutton (26 saves) flubbed it with his glove, and the puck popped in the air, hit the top of the net, bounced off Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella’s stick and in to make it 1-0 midway through the first period.
“I just tried throwing it on net,” Ferland said. “I didn’t want to get it deflected. It was a good bounce.”
Skinner knotted it up at the end of the first.
On Buffalo’s first power play, Skinner banged in a rebound on Curtis McElhinney (30 saves) to tie the game with just 21 seconds left in the opening frame. It gave Skinner his 30th goal in 44 games with Buffalo on the day he was named an NHL All-Star for the first time since he was in Raleigh during his rookie season.
The teams then traded goals in the first six minutes of the second.
First, Justin Williams dangled around Sabres forward Tage Thompson — who had a short-lived stint on the wing with Eichel and Skinner — and roofed a short-side shot over Hutton’s shoulder at 4:30 to push his goal-scoring streak to four games.
“That’s a team we’re chasing, probably a team we’re going to have to chase to get into the playoffs,” Williams said of the Sabres, who hold the final Wild Card spot and are now five points ahead of Carolina. “So they’re ahead of us, we want to be where they are. But we can’t really look at the standings yet. We just need to keep plodding along.”
Buffalo’s Justin Pominville answered off the rush 30 seconds later, firing home a one-timer in the slot past Curtis McElhinney to tie the game.
Then Aho & Co. took over.
“It’s just like playing with Johnny (Gaudreau) in Calgary,” Ferland, acquired from the Flames this offseason, said of Aho. “Enough isn’t enough ever for those two guys. You go out there and get some scoring chances, and the next shift Fishy’s yelling down my throat, ‘Get the puck! Let’s go! Let’s keep it going!’ I think that’s what just makes those guys special players. They never take their foot off the gas.”
Buffalo pushed down the stretch, getting a goal from Kyle Okposo with 3:12 remaining to cut the lead to one, but the Sabres were unable to get the equalizer.
It ended with Williams bowling his helmet into his teammates for the postgame Storm Surge — a group thankful to get two points after a rough loss 24 hours earlier, even if it took a few bounces.
“They went our way for sure, but again, maybe it’s starting to even itself out a little bit, because we’re starting to see some pucks go in that certainly didn’t go in for us,” Brind’Amour said.
Notes: Ferland had the first three-point game of his career. … All but two Carolina players (Victor Rask and Lucas Wallmark) registered a shot on goal, but no one had more than three. … Skinner finished with four shots and was a minus-2. … Justin Faulk dropped the gloves with Jacob Larsson in the second period, but the duo was accessed rough minors, with Faulk receiving four minutes. … The Hurricanes outhit the Sabres 38-18, led by Warren Foegele, Jordan Martinook and Svechnikov with five each.