A slow start contributed to the Carolina Hurricanes missing the playoffs last season. They've made sure not to repeat that mistake in 2007-08.
The Hurricanes look to continue their early season success and snap a five-game losing streak against the Buffalo Sabres when the teams meet at the RBC Center on Wednesday.
Carolina (5-1-3) has been one of the league's best teams in the first three weeks, getting balanced offensive production and outstanding goaltending from Cam Ward.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06, the Hurricanes started slowly last season and were 3-4-2 after nine games. They are well ahead of that pace this season, trailing only Ottawa - owner of the NHL's best record - and Minnesota in the overall standings.
Ward has been nothing short of brilliant, going 5-0-2 with a 1.83 goals-against average. He has allowed one goal in four of his seven starts while giving up three in each of the other three.
Ward was excellent again Monday, turning away 19 shots and besting Vancouver's Roberto Luongo in a 3-1 home victory.
The Sabres (3-4-0), however, have been a problem for Ward, who's 0-2-1 with a 4.25 GAA in three career starts against them.
Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney scored power-play goals Monday for the Hurricanes, who rebounded from a shootout loss at Pittsburgh and an overtime defeat at Philadelphia. Despite losing the final two contests, Carolina went 3-1-2 on a season-high six-game road trip.
"Coming back home, you always have concerns about trying to be too cute or your thought process going into the game," coach Peter Laviolette said. "I thought we were very sharp in both areas tonight."
Another area where Carolina has shown dramatic improvement is on the power play. The Hurricanes - whose power-play unit last season ranked 25th in the NHL - is currently third, converting 13 of 49 opportunities.
"It's important for a power play to continue to score," Stillman said. "One a game, two a game, will allow us to win a lot of hockey games."
Carolina's balanced scoring has prevented opposing teams from focusing on one line.
Eric Staal leads the team with six goals, while four other players have three. Captain Rod Brind'Amour - among the league leaders with 10 assists - has one goal and eight assists during a six-game point streak.
Buffalo has been an inconsistent team thus far, opening with two losses before running off three straight wins, then losing the next two.
Despite getting goals nine seconds apart in the second period from Paul Gaustad and Derek Roy, the Sabres opened a five-game road trip Saturday with a 4-2 loss to Montreal.
"I thought we played a really good game," Roy said. "Our penalty kill did a good job. We were forcing them to shoot wide and they did shoot wide and they happened to get a lucky bounce."
Buffalo has been held to two goals over its last two games after scoring 18 during a three-game win streak.
Part of the problem has been a power play that's 1-for-11 in those two losses. The possible Wednesday return of defenseman Jaroslav Spacek - second on the team with four goals - could provide the lift the Sabres are looking for.
Spacek has been sidelined since injuring his shoulder Oct. 15 against Toronto.
"He's doing a lot better," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff told the team's official Web site. "(His playing status) will depend whether we can get him in full contact or not."
Buffalo won all four meetings with Carolina last season.