- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

When Rod Brind’Amour lifted the Stanley Cup into the air at RBC Center in June, it cemented the Carolina Hurricanes as one of the model franchises in the “New NHL.”

The Hurricanes played an entertaining brand of aggressive, offensive-minded hockey that took advantage of the new rules. In a market where some of the sport’s old guard did not believe hockey could succeed, Carolina played to raucous full houses in the playoffs. The Raleigh, N.C., rink was suddenly a great environment for a game, not just the first NHL arena to use cheerleaders.

In the first season of the post-lockout era, “Redneck Hockey” — as it was affectionately dubbed — was a resounding success.

“It is something you dream about as a kid and words really can’t describe what it felt like,” said center Eric Staal, who led the Stanley Cup champions in scoring in both the regular season and the playoffs as a 21-year-old. “It was a phenomenal season and the best finish you could ever ask for.”

Things have changed a bit since Carolina knocked off Edmonton in seven games to move atop the hockey world. The Hurricanes are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference entering tonight’s contest against the visiting Washington Capitals.

With Brind’Amour, Staal, Conn Smythe Trophy winning goalie Cam Ward and most of the rest of the key players from last season’s Cup run back, the Hurricanes entered this season as one of the favorites. Carolina stumbled at the beginning of the season and the team it bested in the Eastern Conference finals, the Buffalo Sabres, became the new darlings of the NHL with their Phoenix Suns-esque style.

“I think it is hard sometimes to come in and re-create that same type of energy and atmosphere from the last game that you played,” right wing Erik Cole said. “When the last game of the season is a Game 7 in your building, it is really tough to re-create that.”

Injuries played a factor, especially with the defense corps. Only one defenseman, Mike Commodore, has played in every game. The Hurricanes have often played with three or even four regular defensmen hurt, and all of the offensive talent has not been enough some nights.

Ward, who was the second-youngest player in league history to be named MVP of the playoffs, has at times this season looked like a 22-year old goaltender in his first full season as the No. 1 guy. Rarely are netminders able to be consistently dominant at that age like Ward was for nearly two months last season.

After years of being perceived as an underdog, the Hurricanes also began the season as the hunted.

“Before [winning the cup], we were a surprise team,” left wing Cory Stillman said. “No one has come in this year and thought, ‘Oh this will be an easy game. They are picked fifth in the their division or whatever.’ Every team wanted to beat us early and I think that was a good learning experience for us. We learned how to go through that, come back and win hockey games.”

Stillman, who was an unheralded free agent signing before last season but proved to be a key cog in the offensive attack for the Hurricanes, missed the first two months of the season after shoulder surgery. He has 14 points in 18 games since returning. Stillman makes a strong group of forwards, which also includes All-Star Justin Williams, veteran Ray Whitney and offseason acquisition Scott Walker, even deeper.

Before dropping a 5-2 decision to the Caps last Thursday in Raleigh, the Hurricanes were 4-0-1 in their previous five games and 10-4-1 since Dec. 16.

“We obviously stumbled early on and had trouble kind of finding ourselves,” Cole said. “I think as the year has gone on we have jelled together as a new group and it has gotten easier. You can’t look at one particular moment to change something like that. I think it takes time. As the new guys get more and more comfortable with each other it gets easier.”