Having become the third team to miss the playoffs a season after winning the Stanley Cup, the Carolina Hurricanes begin their quest to return to glory Wednesday when they open the 2007-08 season against the Montreal Canadiens.
After winning the Stanley Cup following the 2005-06 season, Carolina opened last season with four consecutive losses and finished 40-34-8 - four points shy of a playoff berth - making it the third defending champion to miss postseason play and the first since New Jersey in 1996.
The Hurricanes, though, appear to have renewed confidence after re-acquiring center Matt Cullen during the offseason.
"We're back, and it's, 'Game on,'" said right wing Justin Williams, the team leader with 33 goals last season.
Cullen was Carolina's third-line center in 2005-06, but signed a four-year contract with the New York Rangers after helping the Hurricanes to their first cup title. The Hurricanes struggled to replace Cullen, so getting him back in a trade from New York became an offseason priority.
"There's no transition period" for Cullen, Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour said. "There's no 'What does he have to do?' We know him, and I think that'll be smooth. And the fact that we didn't do well last year has got a little fire under us."
Carolina's commitment is not lost on Cullen, who set career highs of 25 goals and 49 points in the cup-winning season.
"The biggest change is that there's kind of a renewed hunger in here," said Cullen, who had 16 goals and 41 points for the Rangers in 2006-07. "You can tell guys are very well-prepared and focused for this season. Last year was a disappointment, so you can feel kind of a renewed dedication to getting back to where we were."
Hurricanes center Eric Staal will look to shake off a difficult season both on and off the ice. The 22-year-old center had 30 goals and 70 points last year, a drop-off of 15 goals and 30 points from his team highs in 2005-06.
He was also arrested with his brother - Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal - on July 21 for misdemeanor disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process due to incidents surrounding Eric's bachelor party in Minnesota.
With Staal struggling offensively, veteran left wing Ray Whitney led Carolina with 83 points while netting 32 goals - one shy of his career high from 1997-98.
In goal, the Hurricanes will again rely on Cam Ward. The 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner enters his second full season as the starter after going 30-21-6 with a 2.93 goals-against average in 60 games last year.
He went 3-1-0 with a 2.50 GAA in four games against the Canadiens last season, helping Carolina improve to 7-1-0 in the last eight meetings between the clubs.
Montreal is also hoping to return to the playoffs after a near miss.
The Canadiens got off to a torrid 21-8-5 start in 2006-07, but collapsed down the stretch by losing 15 of their last 28 games and finished 42-34-6, two points shy of a postseason berth.
Part of those troubles stemmed from a torn left hamstring to goaltender Cristobal Huet in February. Huet, who finished the season 19-16-3 with a 2.81 GAA in 42 contests, is healthy again for the start of 2007-08.
Montreal was active in the offseason, signing defenseman Roman Hamrlik, center Bryan Smolinski and forward Tom Kostopoulos to replace departed free agents Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson.
The team's biggest loss could be defenseman Sheldon Souray, who had career highs of 26 goals - including a team-high six game-winners - and 64 points. Montreal replaced him with veteran Roman Hamrlik, who had 14 goals and 64 points over the last two seasons with Calgary.
The Canadiens also added 36-year-old defenseman Patrice Brisebois, who spent 14 seasons in Montreal from 1990-2004. The veteran returns after spending two seasons in Colorado.
He will be reunited with coach Guy Carbonneau, his first roommate when he joined the Canadiens.
This is the seventh straight season Montreal has opened on the road. It has split its last six season openers. Carolina, meanwhile, has opened the last four seasons with losses.