EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — The Islanders were nursing a 1-0 lead with 3:20 to go in the second period with play at 4-on-4 when defenseman Sebastian Aho found himself on the left endboards of his own team’s zone with two Arizona Coyotes bearing down on him.
Rather than flick the puck up the boards into the neutral zone for what would generally be a 50-50 chance for the Islanders retain possession, he weaved through the pressure himself to the left circle before firing a pass to center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, sparking a 2-on-1 chance on the other end.
“I’m maybe a little bit more confident now [to make that play],” Aho said on Thursday. “I trust myself a little bit more to try and do it a little more often and be more successful with it. I’ve had a little bit more poise so far with the puck.”
The 27-year-old blueliner has taken a stranglehold on a bottom-pair spot within the Islanders’ defense after playing a career-high 71 games last season. His two-way abilities have already made him a quarterback on the New York power play, but it’s also showing an ability to supplement the offensive attack two games in. Along with his burgeoning transitional play, his 11 shot attempts are tied for second-most on the team.
Aho is making good on his chance to become a regular in the starting lineup. He played in a combined 61 games from 2017-2022 before getting those 71 games last year.
“The more you play, the better you usually feel,” Aho said. “Then you start doing stuff you know you can but maybe you don’t really want to do unless you feel that your game is on in a good place.”
Hence the kind of play he made on the left end boards on Tuesday night, which ultimately ended in a 1-0 Islanders victory.
“With a little bit more added responsibility and added time, I think he’s blossomed a little bit with his confidence,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert said. “He’s worked hard at it and has done a really good job of doing what he needs to do in order to put himself in that position.”
“I think inside the room, everyone’s known he’s always been a really good player,” defenseman Noah Dobson added. “I think we’ve seen the confidence grow into this year. He has a really good skill set. He sees the ice really well and makes good plays. He’s a big piece of our D-core and it’s nice to see him continue to get more and more confident each game.”
Aho’s early-season tests have only strengthened, though, with his partner Scott Mayfield on the shelf after suffering a lower-body injury during Saturday night’s season opener that held him out on Tuesday and has him appear doubtful for Friday’s meeting with the New Jersey Devils.
Working with Samuel Bolduc, who had just 17 games of NHL experience to his name entering this season, Aho not only switched to the right — his off side — but he helped the Islanders’ defense limit a fast Coyotes team to just 14 shots.
I come in to prove to them and to myself that I deserve to play on this level,” Aho said. “So far, so good.”