TORONTO -- To the hat trick artist goes the glory, and rightfully so. This is the blossoming Andrei Svechnikov we saw during the regular season, still learning just how talented he really is, just how unstoppable he can be.
His third goal doesn't happen, though, without the diligent work of Sebastian Aho in the neutral zone, forcing the puck loose from Jacob Trouba and escorting Svechnikov down the ice before feeding his younger linemate for his third goal. Just as he did on Svechnikov's second. And first goal.
The first two games of this best-of-five qualifying round series have been a portrait of dominance on the part of the Carolina Hurricanes, led by their stars. And for all of Svechnikov's goals, no star more than Aho, who has been a dynamic two-way force against the overwhelmed New York Rangers. Even beyond the production -- a goal and four assists through two games after Monday's 4-1 win in Toronto -- Aho has been everywhere on the ice, driving play, creating, disrupting.
It wasn't as if Aho had a lot of work to do on his game before, so his improvement hasn't been as fast or as dramatic as Svechnikov, but the 23-year-old center has found a new level nonetheless.
"He's definitely matured as a hockey player," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "He's understanding what he has to do for our team to be successful. We're fortunate to have guys who put the team first and he's definitely doing that, playing a team game. He's got all the talent in the world and you can see that in some of the plays he makes. Certainly his maturity as a hockey player is coming to the forefront."
A little less than 11 months after the Hurricanes matched the $42 million offer sheet the Montreal Canadiens extended Aho, he has been every bit the game-changing star this postseason both franchises expected sooner rather than later.
It's showing on the scoresheet, it's showing on the ice and it's showing in the giddy excitement of the equally dangerous 20-year-old Russian winger who has been both a catalyst for and the beneficiary of Aho's work and recorded the first playoff hat trick in franchise history Monday.
"I just think he's a special player," Svechnikov said. "He's got great talent. He's fast, like he's just super-talented."
The Hurricanes weren't going to get very far without a strong performance from Aho and his highly skilled linemates, but this start to the postseason exceeds even those high expectations. Aho and Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen have so far been more than the sum of their parts, drastically outplaying Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and Mike Zibanejad and the rest of the Rangers stars. That line has figured in five of the Hurricanes' seven playoff goals.
Combine that with Petr Mrazek's strong work in net -- even in a three-goal game, Mrazek had two early game-savers as the Hurricanes found their stride, one a flashy reach out of the splits on a point-blank Brett Howden, the other a composed, close-range glove save that left an unattended Zibanejad no room to shoot -- and the Hurricanes have gotten the elite performances they needed from their elite players.
Was this the last the Hurricanes will see of Henrik Lundqvist? Perhaps. Whatever voodoo he had over the Hurricanes evaporated in a haze of Hurricanes goals over the past 72 hours, with Aho orchestrating the disentangling and Svechnikov applying the coup de grace to bring the Hurricanes to the verge of the first round.
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