Looking at the impact of the special teams, Aho led the Canes third period comeback with two PPG’s. While the Canes and their PP are showing some recent signs of the life, the downside is that the PK is looking mortal again. Throughout the past few games, the Canes have gone from having the top PK unit and fell to sixth, only killing 84% of penalties.
Two of the three Rangers PP goals came off of fortunate situations or bounces. The first one came on a 5v3 after Ward made a few series of great saves. The other one came off of an unforced McClement turnover where he lost the puck in the slot and Zibanejab finished off the play. I think the PK is in a bit of a transition with Hanifin filling in for Hainsey and then some forwards being injured. I imagine that they will get better with more time hopefully.
Much of the conversation after the Canes win was the play of Aho. He had two goals and one assist and was noticeable on the ice beyond his point production. One interesting facet about Aho is that it took him 14 games to notch his first goal—however, in his last 51 games he now has scored 19 goals.
This pace is right around a 30 goal per season pace. Given how well he has been playing recently, I could easily see him tallying right around 30 goals by the end of the year. It has been a surprise to see his scoring rise to this level, as in his first 20 games he looked like a more natural playmaker. While we have only seen him play 64 games, he has shown that he has the hockey IQ and positioning to put himself in great scoring situations.
Overall, Aho continues to excel and has been one of the very bright spots on this young team. He flies under the radar despite being third in goals for NHL rookies. I’d be willing to say that if Aho was on a more offensively gifted team, he would probably be closer to the top for total points too. While players like Marner, Laine, Matthews, Nylander and Tkachuk are always spotlights for the rookie conversation, Aho is typically left out of the conversation. I imagine that he will begin to start getting league-wide recognition soon.
Despite Aho playing such a great game, I was personally most impressed with the play of Lindholm. He has been very strong throughout the second half of the season. While he struggled early on offensively, since Jan 1st he is second on the team in points—trailing only Staal. He has 19 points in 24 games, Staal has 21 points in 28, so there can be an argument that he has been more productive than Staal.
Lindholm was probably the primary reason that the Canes scored their first goal and the fourth goal. One the first goal he made a crucial poke-check which led to the Rangers turnover to Rask who set Skinner up for the goal. On the fourth goal, Lindholm’s net front presence and ability to track down the puck and make the pivotal pass that allowed Staal to find Aho wide-open.
While his offensive production was noticeable—I particularly liked his puck pressure and defense. He made a smart decision when the Rangers were on a transition play late in the third—if he had of taken the line change, the Rangers would have had a 3 on 2. In the past, the Canes have made some poor line changes that resulted in key goals.
In fact, you could see him turn his head, recognize the situation, change course, and slow the Ranger rush—it seems stupid, maybe even not important to some—but the reality is those small details done right, every shift equals wins. Some of the greatest teams in the NHL’s history won multiple cups off of solely focusing on taking advantage of an opponent’s 2-3 mistakes (Yes, I’m referring to NJD from late 90’s until 2010ish).
The final person that I want to focus on for a strong game is Zykov. He made a similar play that Lindholm did on the 4th goal, as he was rewarded for taking Raanta’s eyes away. Zykov first made a great play in the corner which resulted in a Rangers turnover as the puck was transitioned up the boards. Zykov busted his butt to the front of the net, found a juicy rebound and slammed it home to give the Canes a 2-1 lead in the first. It was his first NHL goal on his first shot and in his debut.
To me, the most impressive part of the play was seeing him go tough in the boards and right to the net. The Canes have truly struggled to win the physical battles in corners and in front of the net. While it is way too early to get too excited about Zykov, I liked his play in all three zones of the ice a lot. I will be interested to see how he looks in his second game now that the adrenaline of his debut is past.
The game tonight has high stakes for both teams. While most of the Canes playoff hopes are non-existent, they still have some. They are 11 points behind the Islanders with two games in hand—however, they also play NYI three times. The point is that the Canes have a lot of opportunity to directly climb the standings in games against the two front-runners for the final wildcard spot.
Ironically, after the Canes play the Leafs tonight, the next two are against the Islanders. In the event the Canes were to win these three games, they would then be at the mercy of the opponents who play the Leafs/Islanders to stay in the playoff hunt. Thus, in the next three games, the Canes could potentially see themselves only five points behind the Islanders.
Yes, I know it is a long shot. No, I am not saying I strongly believe the Canes have a shot.
However, I am pointing out that if anyone thinks this group of Canes is going to throw in the towel and be a doormat the next 18 games, I think you’re terribly mistaken. Puck drop is at 7:00 and on FSCR and CBC—Go Canes!