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Sabres-Hurricanes Preview

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On Wednesday night, the Carolina Hurricanes will raise their first Stanley Cup banner. The Buffalo Sabres believe they can be in the same position a year from now.

Less than four months after hoisting its first Stanley Cup, Carolina begins defense of its title at the RBC Center against Buffalo in a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference finals.

"It's definitely going to give me some goose bumps," said center Eric Staal regarding the fans' expected reaction for the banner raising. "I'm sure everybody on our team that was part of that will remember all the hard times that we went through, the ups and the downs and, of course, the finish."

After defeating Montreal and New Jersey in the first two rounds of the postseason, the Hurricanes twice rallied from a game down to oust Buffalo in seven games to advance to their first Cup finals, where they beat Edmonton in seven games.

A retooled roster - and perhaps a championship hangover - during the preseason left Carolina looking little like the team that won it all. The 'Canes were outscored 20-10 while losing their first four games and finished the preseason with only one win.

"This was a different kind of preseason for most of us," defenseman Mike Commodore said. "The party's over here. Last year's (been laid) to rest. Teams are going to be gunning for us."

Carolina made several offseason changes. Martin Gerber, who emerged as a starting goalie for the first time in his career only to lose that job to rookie and eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward during the playoffs, signed as a free agent with Ottawa.

Center Matt Cullen and defenseman Aaron Ward both signed with the New York Rangers. Doug Weight and Mark Recchi - acquired for veteran leadership - returned to St. Louis and Pittsburgh, respectively.

And Cory Stillman, tied for second on team with 76 points, underwent shoulder surgery in August and is expected to miss up to four months.

But the Hurricanes still have Staal, who finished with 45 goals and 100 points, and three 30-goal scorers in Justin Williams, Rod Brind'Amour and Erik Cole.

Cam Ward, the 22-year-old goalie, was 14-8-2 record and a 3.68 goals-against average in the regular season. He went 15-8-0 with a 2.14 GAA in the postseason, and will be backed up by newcomer John Grahame.

Any preseason problems will quickly be forgotten if Carolina can come close to duplicating its home start from last year. The Hurricanes won their first seven home games and finished with a 31-8-2 regular season record.

"Obviously, it's important to get off with a (strong) start," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "But it's a long season (and) you've got to win an awful lot of home games."

Expectations in Buffalo are the Sabres can be the next team to raise the Stanley Cup.

"The onus is on all of us," general manager Darcy Regier said at the start of training camp last month. "The expectations are different. We have a different set of circumstances. ... I think the biggest part is we expect to win."

Buffalo set a franchise record with 52 wins last season, but emerged as a legitimate Cup contender after knocking off Philadelphia and Ottawa in the first two rounds.

"What we did last year doesn't mean anything right now," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team boosted its payroll nearly 50 percent from $29 million to right below the cap limit of $44 million this season. "I think it's the way we played that we have to recapture. We've got to recapture that trust and that feeling that every guy on this team's important."

One key will be goaltender Ryan Miller, signed last month to a new three-year deal worth $8 million. In his rookie season last year, Miller was 30-14-3 with a 2.60 GAA despite missing 18 games with broken thumb. He went 11-7 with a 2.56 GAA in the postseason.

Maxim Afinogenov, who led the Sabres with 51 assists and 73 points a year ago, agreed to a two-year, $10 million deal. Co-captain Daniel Briere also received a one-year, $5 million award from an arbitrator after tallying 58 points in just 48 games.

Buffalo lost only three regulars from last season. Forward Mike Grier went to San Jose and defenseman Jay McKee signed with St. Louis.

J.P. Dumont was given a one-year, $2.9 million deal by an abritrator, but the Sabres walked away from the award, and Dumont - one of six 20-goal scorers - signed with Nashville.

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