The Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes were knocked out of last season’s playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champions. They’ll begin what they hope is a trip back to the postseason when they open 2009-10 at the RBC Center on Friday night.
Carolina’s 2008-09 season came to an especially disappointing end. The Hurricanes went 17-5-2 to close the regular season, then became the second team in history to win two Game 7s on the road in the same year, knocking off New Jersey and Boston. Carolina, though, was swept by Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals.
“Everybody’s gotten a taste of what it takes, for the guys that haven’t been in the playoffs,” goalie Cam Ward said. “For the guys that were in the playoffs, it was just another taste of how much enjoyment we had (in 2006, when Carolina won the Stanley Cup).”
Ward, the ’06 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, signed a six-year, $37.8 million extension Wednesday.
His deal came a year after Carolina signed another core player, center Eric Staal, to a seven-year extension.
Staal led the Hurricanes with 40 goals and was second to Ray Whitney with 75 points in 2008-09. He scored the winning goal against New Jersey with 32 seconds remaining in Game 7.
“To have the two young star players that you know are going to be with the organization for a long time, regardless of how bad of a season a team could end up having, you can always turn around and rebuild around those two guys immediately,” general manager Jim Rutherford said.
Paul Maurice begins his first full season as Carolina’s coach since 2003-04. Maurice, fired in December of that season, returned to the Hurricanes’ bench last December after Peter Laviolette was let go.
Carolina went 33-19-5 and finished second in the Southeast Division under Maurice, who signed a three-year contract in June.
Former Flyer and current Hurricanes captain Rod Brind’Amour returns for his 20th season. The 39-year-old center played 80 games last season and recorded 16 goals and 35 assists.
Defenseman Joni Pitkanen – a Flyer from 2003-07 – is questionable for Friday after knee surgery in September, but Carolina’s group of defensemen looks strong with Joe Corvo, Niclas Wallin, Tim Gleason, Tim Conboy and Aaron Ward, re-acquired in July from Boston. Ward played for Carolina from 2001-06.
While the Hurricanes seek their second Stanley Cup in five seasons, the Flyers are looking to end their 34-year championship drought.
Philadelphia toughened up its defense corps after falling in six games in the East quarterfinals to the Penguins, acquiring Chris Pronger from Anaheim in June.
“The style of play the Flyers play certainly fits mine,” said the 6-foot-6 Pronger, who signed a seven-year, $34.5 million contract. “They’ve got some great young talent. I hope to help them win a Stanley Cup.”
Pronger won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with Anaheim, which came against Ottawa and goaltender Ray Emery – now a member of the Flyers.
After a contentious departure from the Senators following the 2007-08 season, Emery spent last year playing in Russia before signing a one-year deal with Philadelphia.
He will start while Brian Boucher recovers from a lower-body injury suffered in the preseason.
Jeff Carter was second in the league with 46 goals last season and Mike Richards scored a career-best 30, but Philadelphia lost some offensive depth in the offseason. Mike Knuble (27 goals) signed with Washington and Joffrey Lupul (25) was part of the Pronger trade.
Danny Briere will be expected to help replace some of that scoring. The center missed 53 games in 2008-09 due to two surgeries to fix torn abdominal muscles.
Philadelphia is also counting on strong seasons from left wing Scott Hartnell (30 goals, 30 assists in ’08-’09) and left wing Simon Gagne (34, 40).
James van Riemsdyk could also help fill the offensive void. Drafted second overall in 2007, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound left wing played the last two seasons at the University of New Hampshire.
“We like the direction we’re going here,” coach John Stevens said. “We think our defense got better. Our young players in Carter, Richards and (Braydon) Coburn have another year of experience. We’re a team that can play four lines more with a better back end. We think we can compete with Pittsburgh.”
Philadelphia, 3-0-1 against Carolina last season, is 6-0-1 in its last seven games at RBC Center.