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Pinball wizards get all the bounces as Hurricanes stay hot

Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20), of Finland, is congratulated by Teuvo Teravainen (86), also of Finland, after his hat trick during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Nashville Predators in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20), of Finland, is congratulated by Teuvo Teravainen (86), also of Finland, after his hat trick during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Nashville Predators in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Micheal Ferland and Justin Williams were debating on the bench which one of them actually scored and neither knew for sure. It’s a good conversation to have, not only because it means someone scored a goal but because the Carolina Hurricanes are finally starting to score the kind of goals where it’s unclear how the puck actually got in the net.

In this case, a Sebastian Aho shot hit Ferland in the leg, went off the stick of Nashville Predators defenseman Dan Hamhuis and off the blade of Williams’ stick on its way into the net, the fifth of six Hurricanes goals in a 6-3 win Sunday and the one that chased Pekka Rinne from the Nashville net just after the halfway point.

It’s the kind of discussion the Hurricanes are having a lot these days, because after three months where they couldn’t catch a break they have suddenly turned into pinball wizards, benefiting from an improbable assortment of bounces, caroms, ricochets, redirections, deflections and diversions as the team that couldn’t shoot straight suddenly can’t miss.

“I guess it’s how it goes,” said Aho, after his second career hat trick.

“We haven’t changed the way we played,” Ferland said.

They have come a long way from the grim days of December, when nothing seemed to go right and the Hurricanes went three weeks without a power-play goal. Sunday, as “Hip Hop Hooray” played in the dressing room afterward and Aho presided over a pile of hats at his locker, Dougie Hamilton sang along – “A! Ho!” – and swung his arms over his head.

In winning seven of their past eight, a good start toward salvaging their season, the Hurricanes have scored 32 goals over those eight games – seven on the power play, two short-handed, a few pretty, many ugly. And never more ugly ones than this Friday-Sunday sweep of Buffalo and Nashville.

Of the 10 goals the Hurricanes have scored in the past 48 hours, four were the result of some kind of fluke or fortunate circumstance. That includes Ferland’s opening goal Friday, which as it played Plinko on its way into the net bounced off the top of the back frame of the goal, something that never happens. Aho scored twice in that game off opponents, his first off Rasmus Dahlin’s skate, his second off Jake McCabe’s stick.

Saturday, a Roman Josi pass intended for Calle Jarnkrok hit Jarnkrok in the skate and bounced straight to Aho in the neutral zone for a breakaway. Aho, who is apparently terrible on shootouts in practice, beat Rinne cold for the opening goal.

The Hurricanes couldn’t catch a break in November and now they’re scoring almost by accident.

“Finally,” Teuvo Teravainen said. “We’re doing a lot of things right and maybe that’s why we’re getting these bounces.”

To that point, Aho’s breakaway came after he pressured Josi at the right point into making a spinning pass into the middle. Josi might not even have seen Jarnkrok sprinting into the zone from the bench. If the pass is a foot in front of Jarnkrok instead, he’s free down the slot and it’s 1-0 Nashville. Instead, it kicks off his skate the other way, Aho picks it up, Josi falls down and it’s 1-0 Carolina. Aho’s tenacity on defense led directly to offense.

“He’s actually in the wrong spot,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “He jumped a guy he isn’t supposed to jump. That’s what top-end guys can do. It’s a good thing he scored, that’s all I’ll say about that.”

As for the rest of it, the Hurricanes have been firing pucks at the net all year hoping good things would happen only for nothing to happen. Their shooting percentage was unexpectedly low and all the bounces seemed to go the other way, which is a bad combination.

Now they’re beating goalies instead of ratting their chest protectors –Williams’ goal Friday was nasty, Aho and Saku Manalaenen scored off difficult one-timers Sunday and even Lucas Wallmark got into the act with a well-placed shot on the rush – and benefiting from a remarkable run of puck luck, earned as it may be.

“We were outplayed,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “They were quicker, they wanted it more and they executed it better.”

They’ll even argue they played better in the 2-0 loss at the New Jersey Devils before this run than they did through the start of this run of this run, but kept the faith through distressing times and are now seeing the results go their way.

Some of that is mere probability and statistical happenstance – some regression to the mean was inevitable, but there was no guarantee it would happen before it was too late – but momentum is a real thing in hockey and the Hurricanes have it now. It’s as real as the confusion on the bench after the fifth goal, the best kind of confusion to have.

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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