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Carolina Hurricanes eager to return to Stanley Cup playoffs @NHLdotcom

RALEIGH, N.C. - Matt Cullen surveyed the Carolina Hurricanes' dressing room, and his mind drifted back to the last time he was there after a game that mattered - the June 2006 celebration that followed the team's first Stanley Cup.

Back with the Hurricanes after a year away, he hopes to relive that scene starting Wednesday night when they open their 10th season in North Carolina against Montreal.

"I was sad to leave in the first place, but happier to come back," Cullen said. "We have such a special group here, and it's a great room to be a part of. Good guys, everybody works hard, lots of great atmosphere to be around."

The Hurricanes hope Cullen, the third-line centre who was a key member of the 2005-2006 team that won the Cup, will fill a critical vacancy and help them return to the NHL's upper echelon. After Cullen signed a free-agent deal last year with the New York Rangers, Carolina spent the entire season trying to find an adequate replacement.

At least in part because of that hole, the Hurricanes became just the third team in the modern era to slip from Cup champions to playoff no-shows.

"The fact that we didn't do well last year kind of has a fire back under us," captain Rod Brind'Amour said.

Now, with Cullen back in the familiar fold, a sleeker Cam Ward in goal and plenty of time to contemplate what else went wrong a season ago, the players insist a new determination is apparent in the dressing room.

"There's kind of a renewed hunger in here," Cullen said. "You can tell the guys are very well-prepared and focused for the season. Last year was a disappointment, so you can feel that renewed dedication."

There's plenty of visible evidence of that. Ward lost 20 pounds during the summer and appears quicker when he moves laterally in front of the net. Virtually everyone reported early to the team's downtown practice rink to get a jump start on the season.

"We expect to win, we want to win, we know we can," centre Eric Staal said. "We know we have a core group of guys that can get it done. Everyone here's got high expectations to win. It's no different for myself."

The well-rested Hurricanes won four of six exhibition games, seemingly unaffected by the weary legs and nagging injuries of a year ago that they never seemed able to shake.

When the Hurricanes raised their Cup banner last October, they did so with an injury-riddled roster - most notably, key components Cory Stillman and Frantisek Kaberle, who were inactive early in the season with shoulder injuries.

"There was a little bit of a gap in our whole lineup," Brind'Amour said. "We're not that deep where we can lose key players."

As a result, they began the season with a shootout loss to Buffalo - a loss Brind'Amour called "a huge wake-up" - and ended it with an overtime victory over Florida that was too little, too late after the Hurricanes were eliminated from playoff contention earlier that week. And in between, they too often failed to generate those dramatic third-period rallies that were a staple of the Cup run.

"It's tough coming off a winning year like we had two years ago, no question about it," Cullen said. "It's a grind, a long grind. That being said, the expectations are high this year. Guys have put in some real hard work this summer and prepared for the season, and there's no telling where we can end up."

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