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Since winning the Stanley Cup three seasons ago, the Carolina Hurricanes haven't returned to the playoffs.
They'll look to put the disappointing end of last season behind them as they open 2008-09 on Friday against the Florida Panthers and Peter DeBoer in his NHL coaching debut.
The Hurricanes (43-33-6) captured their first Cup in 2005-06, but they've endured less-than-memorable finishes the last two seasons. In 2006-07, Carolina lost five of its last seven games to miss the playoffs by four points, and last season's final stretch was even worse.
With a 2-1 overtime win over Florida (38-35-9) on March 20, Carolina took a seemingly safe seven-point lead over Washington atop the Southeast Division. The advantage didn't hold up, however, as the Hurricanes went 2-3-1 to close the season while the Capitals won seven straight to take the division by two points.
Heading into its regular season finale April 4, Carolina could have clinched the Southeast by beating Florida, but the Panthers came away with a 4-3 win, snapping a 14-game losing streak at the RBC Center. Washington captured the division one day later with 3-1 victory over Florida.
"I was ready to get going a week after we were officially eliminated last year," forward Eric Staal told the team's official Web site. "Being that close, leading the division most of the year and it didn't happen, that was a tough pill to swallow. It makes you work and push that much harder to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Staal had team highs of 38 goals and 44 assists last season, and will again be counted on to provide scoring for a team that finished 2007-08 ranked fifth in goals (250).
Ray Whitney added 25 goals and 36 assists for the Hurricanes last season, and had three goals and six assists in seven games against the Panthers.
Carolina went 5-3-0 versus Florida in 2007-08 and has won 12 of the last 15 meetings, but it may be without its captain for the opener. Rod Brind'Amour, who had 19 goals and 32 assists in 59 games last season, underwent surgery to remove torn cartilage from his left knee Sept. 16. He made his first appearance of the preseason in Sunday's finale.
While Carolina had no trouble scoring goals last season, its defense allowed the sixth-most goals in the league at 246. The Hurricanes have added defensemen Josef Melichar and Anton Babchuk in hopes of solving that problem.
Cam Ward is expected to start the opener after going 37-25-5 with a 2.75 goals-against average and four shutouts last season. Ward was 3-2-0 with a 2.85 GAA in six starts versus Florida in '07-'08.
The Panthers are also trying to put an end to their lengthy playoff drought and hope a new coach can lead the way.
After finishing nine points behind the Capitals last season, Florida hired DeBoer on June 13 to take over a team that has not been to the playoffs since 2000.
Despite having no previous NHL coaching experience, DeBoer was a highly touted junior coach with the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers.
"There's too much character in that room for some of those guys not to have played in the playoffs four, five or six years," DeBoer said. "You can see it in their eyes. They're hungry. They want to play in the playoffs. Those are kids that are used to winning games and playing at that time of year."
The Panthers will begin this season without former captain Olli Jokinen, the team's all-time scoring leader. Jokinen, who had team highs of 34 goals and 37 assists in 2007-08, was traded to Phoenix for defensemen Nick Boynton and Keith Ballard.
Nathan Horton, who was second on the team with 27 goals and 35 assists, will be called upon to step up his offensive production. Horton had five goals and four assists in eight games against Carolina in 2007-08.
Defensively, Boynton and Ballard will need to help take some pressure off of Tomas Vokoun, who faced a league-high 2,213 shots last season. Vokoun went 30-29-8 with a 2.68 GAA and four shutouts in 2007-08.
"You know, every season, everyone has the same chance," Vokoun told the team's official Web site. "You never know what's going to happen. That's why we have to get off to a good start and build winning and confidence. I'm really looking forward to a good season."