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As Hurricanes dominate Bruins, Sebastian Aho continues to ascend to another level

The Boston Bruins finally figured out what the rest of the NHL has struggled to unravel lately. They found a way to stop Sebastian Aho. Hampus Lindholm did the math, putting his stick under Aho’s, lifting it with great force and knocking Aho’s lumber into the stratosphere.

While Aho threw his hands up in the air, his man cut behind him to score the Bruins’ only goal. It’s only a penalty if someone calls it. And it was about the only time the Bruins got the better of Aho or the Carolina Hurricanes all night.

The Bruins may have been coming off a late collapse in Florida on Saturday night, but the way the Hurricanes played, it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d been in town waiting for the Hurricanes to come back from the road instead. This was a complete performance — even strength, power play, penalty-kill (especially) and goaltending — that would have overwhelmed anyone.

Even, in this case, the best team in the NHL.

Throw in an electric crowd, and this 4-1 win was as good as it gets for late January. If you want better, you’re going to have to wait three months. And while it was a top-to-bottom team effort, it started with Aho, who continues to elevate his game to levels the Hurricanes always hoped and believed he could attain.

The play Aho made to start the scoring — picking David Pastrnak’s pocket at the blue line, rocketing the other way and beating Linus Ullmark with a deft little fake — was pure brilliance, the kind of game-changing play that can turn around not only a game like this but a playoff series.

It’s what the Hurricanes needed to try to turn things their way against the Bruins in 2019 and 2020. It’s what they needed to keep up with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2021. And even if those were all lost causes, it’s definitely what they needed last spring to crack the New York Rangers in a series they had no excuse for losing.

As good as Aho’s been in the postseason over the course of his career, he’s never taken over a game or a series himself. And, to be fair, there wasn’t any reason to expect it when he hadn’t done it on a regular basis in the regular season.

But that’s what he’s doing now, what he did Friday to trigger the comeback that turned a loss into a win, what he did Sunday to set the tone, what he’s been ramping steadily toward since returning from the undisclosed lower-body injury that knocked him out for two weeks in December.

“There’s still another level up there,” Aho said. “I wasn’t too happy about my game right after I came back. It took me a few games here to get back into a groove. The last game, few games, are pretty solid efforts.”

He had the first-period goal, a moment of single-handed individual dominance, his seventh in the past four games. He had a point-blank snap-shot chance shortly after that Ullmark was able to block. And Aho had another breakaway, short-handed, in the second after Brett Pesce winged a pass 120 feet from his own goal line to hit Aho in stride. Ullmark got the better of him there, but the Hurricanes got the better of the Bruins’ power play, going a sterling 6-for-6 on the kill.

All told, he has 14 points in the past 10 games. It was always easy to believe Aho had this next gear in him, that he could go from star to superstar, but there was never any guarantee. He always had the skill, the mental strength and the competitiveness to be an elite NHL player, but there’s a difference between good and great, between determined and decisive, and Aho has crossed that boundary.

“It’s been very eye-opening, this year and a half I’ve been teammates with him, seeing how good he actually is,” said Frederik Andersen, who made 24 saves and has never lost to the Bruins in a Carolina uniform. “We can’t get enough. He’s been awesome.”

There wasn’t a player in a Bruins jersey — not Pastrnak, not Patrice Bergeron, not Brad Marchand, not David Krecji, none of their stars — who influenced the game Sunday the way Aho did. And while the Hurricanes had no shortage of contributors on a night their game showed very few flaws, if any, Aho set the tone from the start.

It’s what he’s done lately, not in flashes but consistently, night after night, week after week. It’s the altitude to which he has ascended, new and rarefied air, almost as high as his stick flew when Lindholm knocked it away — a play that left him, afterward, speechless.

“I … yeah … I mean … I don’t know,” Aho said. “Next.”

That’s one way to stop Aho. There aren’t, at this moment, many others.

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