When they weren’t spending time battling for the puck, they spent time jawing and clawing at one another after the whistle.
In a desperate attempt to drag his Carolina Hurricanes back into the fight, Sebastian Aho’s bid to get the best of Nikita Kucherov was on full display Thursday at Amalie Arena.
In the end, the 23-year-old Hurricanes star won the latest battle, setting up the overtime winner with Tampa’s former Hart Trophy winner sitting in the penalty box.
On a night when Kucherov assisted on both Lightning power-play goals to climb back into a game the hosts trailed 2-0, Aho refused to be outdone, scoring once and setting up two others in a crucial 3-2 win.
“It doesn’t matter who he’s playing against – he wants to be the best,” said Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour when asked about Aho’s emotional and physical display.
“Thing is, he’s willing to do what he has to be the best and I think that’s what is going to make him better and better as the years go on. He’s super competitive. He wants to win so bad. That’s what you’re seeing for me, that competitive edge.”
Now there’s a coach who knows a thing or two about playing with edginess and heart.
At his tender age and compact size, Aho has spent the whole season on a mission to prove he can be one of the game’s best.
With 24 goals and a point per game during the season, Aho had the Central-winning Canes challenging for a Presidents’ Trophy.
He’s been even better in the playoffs where his six goals trail only Nathan MacKinnon.
At no time this year was he needed more than Game 3 on Thursday, when the Hurricanes had to climb back into the series after being swept at home where they’d previously lost just three times all season.
“We get punched in the face over and over, and tough bounces, but we just stick with it,” said Brett Pesce, who had to leave the game briefly after going through concussion testing following a hit by Kucherov the defender deemed “a little dirty.”
“So proud of these guys. The power play came up big for us. We know (Aho) is a star. He’s a world-class player and he seems to always come through for us. He’s our best player and he showed it tonight.”
Two minutes after Pesce scored the team’s first even-strength goal of the series, Aho scooted in alone to put Carolina up 2-0 by slipping a shot through Andrei Vasilevskiy’s pads midway through the game.
By period’s end, the Bolts’ vaunted power play tied it 2-2, kick-started by an Aho crosscheck across Ondrej Palat’s numbers.
Despite being 176 pounds, Aho was in the meat of the game all night, at one point needing to be separated from Kucherov by a linesman who heard all about how intensely these two seem to disagree.
“It’s the matchup we’ve been playing – his line against my line all three games,” said Aho of the tete-a-tete.
“We see each other a lot out there every game. It’s playoff hockey, so it’s nothing more than that. There’s no secret we want to play aggressive and not be afraid of a grind game.”
They certainly aren’t.
On the short end of a pair of 2-1 losses to open the series, the division-winning Canes needed something to believe in against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Aho gave them that, as he has throughout a playoff history that has seen the Finnish star score 32 points in 32 games. Aho started overtime by killing off the final minute of a Tampa man-advantage before setting up the winner six minutes in with a one-timer from the slot tipped in by Jordan Staal on the power play.
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“What I love about it is everybody is getting to see what he’s all about this year,” said coach Brind’Amour of his prized student.
“Hopefully we can continue on and he can keep playing the way he is playing. He was great again tonight, he had a great chance in overtime short-handed. When you have a guy who plays in all situations and you rely on him so much, the value of this guy is off the charts. And he’s your leader, too, so he’s doing it right on and off the ice.”
None of it would have been possible if not for the 35 saves from Petr Mrazek, who made his first appearance in almost a month.
“He was good,” said Brind’Amour, who started rookie sensation Alex Nedeljkovic the first eight games of the playoffs.
“Did I expect him to be like that? I didn’t really know what to expect to be honest with you, he’d been out so long. But he’s a battler. Everybody just dug in. We got a win we deserved. I don’t know if tonight we were the better team, that’s debatable. Overall we got something we deserved, to be back in the series.”