Sebastian Aho chugs along as Hurricanes’ top player

With Andrei Svechnikov out for the season, all eyes will be on Carolina’s No. 1 center this postseason

Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho celebrates the first of his three goals in Carolina’s overtime win over the Flyers on March 18 in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Andrei Svechnikov started 2022-23 with eight goals in the Hurricanes’ first nine games of the season and earned his first All-Star selection, winning the fastest skater competition for good measure.

Martin Necas has nearly matched his goal output from the two previous seasons combined, scoring 27 times to emerge as a force up front for Carolina.

Brady Skjei has totaled 16 goals — seven more than the then-career-best nine he had last season — to become one of the NHL’s top goal-scoring defensemen.

Brent Burns, who just turned 38 years old and is in his first season in Raleigh, continues to add to his Hall of Fame resume, registering 54 points through 72 games while maintaining his Ironman streak.

So folks can be forgiven if they overlook the season Sebastian Aho is having.

For the sixth straight season, Aho is between 2.8 and 3.2 points per 60 minutes played. His 33 goals entering Tuesday night have him on pace to match his career high of 38 from 2019-20.

For all of the hand-wringing about Carolina’s need for consistent scoring, few have been as reliable as Aho throughout his career. On top of notching his fourth career 30-goal season, Aho’s shooting percentage is at 16.7% — the same as it was last season and just slightly higher than his 16.2% from the 56-game COVID season the year before.

Most encouraging for the Hurricanes is how Aho has elevated his game in the absence of Svechnikov.

Svechnikov was lost for the season after tearing his right ACL on March 11, and Aho was in a four-game point drought when his frequent linemate went down. Aho had three more games without a point — the seven games were his longest drought since his rookie season — but in the five following games had six goals and an assist.

And he did it in dramatic fashion.

Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho has reached the 30-goal mark for the fourth time in his career. (Mary Altaffer / AP Photo)

Aho busted out of his funk on March 18 in Philadelphia, scoring in the first and second periods before undressing former teammate Tony DeAngelo in overtime to win the game for Carolina.

After being held without a point in the Hurricanes’ win in New York, Aho scored two nights later in a home loss to the Rangers.

On Saturday at PNC Arena, Aho answered Auston Matthews’ controversial late game-tying goal with his own 32 seconds later, stunning the Maple Leafs in a 5-3 win.

That goal was Aho’s ninth game-winning tally of the season, behind only Edmonton teammates Connor McDavid and Leon Driasaitl, both with 10, for the most in the NHL.

The next day against the mighty Bruins, Aho tied the game in the third period, helping Carolina erase a two-goal deficit to earn a point in a shootout loss.

In all, the Hurricanes are 17-2-6 when Aho scores this season, and without Svechnikov he will need to continue doing it — especially in crunch time.

Twenty-eight of Aho’s 62 points and 13 of his goals have come in the third period or overtime, including five game-winning goals.

In his postseason career, Aho has totaled 18 goals and 46 points in 48 career playoff games, numbers that mirror his production in the regular season. But since Carolina’s run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2019, Aho has struggled after the first round.

After putting up three goals and eight points in a three-game sweep of the Rangers in the bubble in 2020, Aho was limited to just three assists in a five-game exit to the Bruins.

The next year he posted five goals and seven points in a six-game series win over Nashville. But despite his two-goal, one-assist Game 3 in Tampa Bay, Aho was limited to just four total points in a 4-1 series loss to the Lightning in 2021.

Aho had five points, including a two-goal Game 2, in helping Carolina exorcise its demons against the Bruins in a seven-game win over Boston in the first round last year. His numbers were even better in Round 2 against the Rangers (two goals and four assists), but he didn’t score in the final five games of the series in a seven-game ouster.

While Aho has had his typically great season without much fanfare, Carolina’s best player will be judged on how he plays when it means the most — in the postseason.

Perhaps his play of late is a sign of things to come.