Sports

Saarela’s postseason NHL debut a Hurricanes’ franchise first

Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20) battles for the puck with Washington’s Nick Jensen (3) in the first period on Monday, April 15, 2019 at the PNC Arena on Raleigh, N.C.
Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20) battles for the puck with Washington’s Nick Jensen (3) in the first period on Monday, April 15, 2019 at the PNC Arena on Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Aleski Saarela said Saturday morning he planned to go to lunch with fellow Finns Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen to get a crash course in not merely playoff hockey but NHL hockey, but the rookie making his league debut five games into this playoff series has been watching from afar.

To the extent he can know what he’s getting into, Saarela thinks he does.

“It’s pretty intense, right?” Saarela said Saturday. “Physical, too. It’s been exciting to watch these guys.”

He’s one of them now, the 22-year-old pushed into the Game 5 lineup Saturday straight out of Charlotte (AHL) after Jordan Martinook was injured Thursday night. In training camp, he was one of the first players cut, a message sent. Saarela had 30 goals and 54 points in 69 games for the Checkers, second on the team in scoring, a message received.

Acquired in the 2016 trade that sent Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, Saarela is known for his heavy shot but needed to work on the other aspects of his game. While Patrick Brown, the Hurricanes’ first call-up this series, is an all-around depth player, Saarela has more skill. He skated on a line with former Checkers teammates Brown and Greg McKegg on Saturday morning.

Assuming he plays as expected Saturday night, he’ll be the first player in franchise history to make his NHL debut in a playoff game.

“I know what kind of player he is and he definitely has a bomb for a shot, so hopefully he can get one off,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “It’s a tough moment to be thrown into the fire like this. We’ll just play it how it goes.”

WALKING WOUNDED While Andrei Svechnikov (concussion protocol) went through the pregame skate with the team (in a yellow no-contact jersey) and said he hoped to be available for Game 6, Martinook did not after reinjuring what was described as a persistent lower-body injury in Game 4.

Micheal Ferland (upper body) did not travel to Washington with the team.

JUMPSTART? The questions for Aho after Game 2 were whether his banked-in goal from behind the goal line could potentially get him going offensively, but he remained quiet until the winning goal in Game 4, when he carried the puck into the zone and left it for Nino Niederreiter, whose pinpoint pass found Teravainen streaking through the slot.

The question for Aho on Saturday was whether that goal could get something going.

“Obviously you get some confidence when your line can score,” Aho said. “All three of us together made that goal happen. Turbo finishes it and that’s a really nice shot by him, but I feel like all three of us did pretty good work.”

The Hurricanes need more from Aho than his one goal and two assists so far going into Game 5, but more than the lack of production, his inability to dictate play has been an issue. At his best, Aho is puck-dominant, carrying the puck through the neutral zone and circling to find space in the offensive zone. There just hasn’t been much in this series.

“They play really tight five-on-five hockey,” Aho said. “There’s not much room to carry the puck in the neutral zone. More just dump it in and go get it. Obviously in the (offensive) zone you want to hang onto the puck and make plays there, but there’s not much in the middle of the ice.”

BACK IN ACTION Canes defenseman Calvin de Haan said he was antsy sitting out the first three games of the playoff series.

“It’s annoying,” he said. “It’s fun to be a part of it. I’d like to think I helped get this team to the playoffs and it’s fun to be a part of the resurgence of the Canes.”

De Haan suffered an upper-body injury late in the regular season that lingered into the postseason. Cleared medically to return, he declared himself ready to play in Game 4 and had 12:21 of ice time in the Canes’ 2-1 victory over the Caps at PNC Arena.

“The games seem to ramp up a little more and everything happens a little faster, it seems, but at the end of the day its just another hockey game and I felt fine out there after a couple of shifts,” de Haan said.

De Haan said it has been a challenging season physically in that he was hit over one eye with a stick, requiring several stitches, and then later hit in an eye and sidelined again. He sustained the undisclosed upper-body injury in the March 31 game in Pittsburgh after falling and sliding into the boards.

“Just freak injuries I can’t really control,” he said.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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