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Despite sweep, Stanley Cup playoff run validates Hurricanes season

RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes are preparing for another comeback after being unable to rally in the NHL's Eastern Conference final.

Two days after their magical playoff run ended, the Hurricanes cleaned out their lockers on Thursday and management conducted exit interviews - with the focus on a repeat performance next season.

"There's no reason why we can't be in the same situation next year with the same team," goalie Cam Ward said. "Everybody's gotten a taste of what it takes, for the guys that haven't been in the playoffs. For the guys that were in the playoffs, it was just another taste of how much enjoyment we had (in 2006).

"Falling short is never fun," he added. "A lot of guys are going to be working extremely hard this summer to do whatever it takes to get ourselves ready for another great run next year."

And what a run it was this year for Carolina.

The Hurricanes seemed destined to miss the playoffs for a third straight year, then streaked through March and April to claim the East's No. 6 seed. They appeared done in each of the first two rounds, then went on the road and rallied to win back-to-back Game 7s.

"This kind of blew my mind, really," defenceman Tim Gleason said. "I never thought we'd go this far."

Carolina has some decisions to make to get back to this point.

A handful of key players aren't yet signed for next season, prompting general manager Jim Rutherford to say of possible off-season moves that "nothing, probably other than Eric Staal and Cam Ward, are cast in stone at this point."

But the franchise's most important free agent might be coach Paul Maurice.

The former Carolina and Toronto coach returned to Raleigh in December as a favour to Rutherford, whom he considers his best friend. Maurice took over a team that had languished under fired coach Peter Laviolette and guided it to a club-record-tying nine straight victories, a team-record 12 straight at home and made them the NHL's hottest team down the stretch.

Under his watch, the Hurricanes became the second team in NHL history to win consecutive Game 7s on the road in the same playoff year. They were the only team to upset two division champions in the playoffs, knocking off No. 3 seed New Jersey and top-seeded Boston before they were eliminated by the surging Penguins.

Rutherford said he's piecing together a new contract for Maurice, and plans to talk to owner Peter Karmanos Jr. next week in Detroit to "hopefully get through this process of what people are expecting the end result's going to be."

"People are kind of taking (Maurice's new deal) for granted, as I would expect based on the job and where the team ended up," he said.

Among the players who qualify for free agency, Finnish forwards Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen - who developed a reputation for scoring clutch goals in the playoffs - will be restricted free agents, meaning they will return if the club matches any offers they receive.

Unrestricted free agents include defenceman Dennis Seidenberg and forwards Chad LaRose and Erik Cole - who flourished in the regular season after returning to the Hurricanes, but had no goals in three playoff rounds.

"I don't think Erik's play can be totally judged on his point total in the playoffs, but I will say it was disappointing for a player of that calibre to go 18 games and not score a goal - that's probably harder to do than score a goal," Rutherford said. "All these situations with our free agents, restricted and nonrestricted, part of what's going to play a role here is what it costs to keep these players."

One player vowing to return for a 21st NHL season is Rod Brind'Amour, the team captain whose minutes dwindled in the playoffs. After Jokinen's emergence he wound up centring the fourth line.

Brind'Amour is one of several key players, including centre Matt Cullen and forward Ray Whitney, whose contracts expire after next season.

"I wouldn't play the game if I didn't believe I could still do it, and not just as a fourth-line player," Brind'Amour said. "My goal is to get back and help contribute to this team. I feel like I can, and that's what I have to do now next year, is come back and prove that I can."


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