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Hurricanes explode out of the gates, out to prove they're Cup contenders again

"We have a lot to prove," leading scorer Justin Williams told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "Seeing someone else raise the Cup and having that opportunity to do it before, that's really all the incentive and motivation you need.

"We've circled all 82 games this year to try to get ourselves back at the top of the Eastern Conference where we belong."

In case you haven't noticed, the Hurricanes have roared out of the gates this season, going 6-1-3 in their first 10 games to challenge the Ottawa Senators atop the Eastern Conference standings. They host the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night.

Carolina is a hungry bunch that was unimpressed with their 2006-07 season, when they followed up a Cup victory by missing the playoff.

"It was unchartered waters for most of us - 95 per cent of the team were first-time winners, coaches included," said Williams. "After we won the Cup, we didn't attack the season the way we should of. It was tough, we had nagging injuries, guys coming in and out of the lineup, and a target on our backs - which Anaheim is seeing right now.

"But this year we want to establish that our Cup year wasn't a fluke, that we're back, and we're as strong as ever."

It also shows why Jim Rutherford is one of the NHL's top general managers. He resisted the more common trend of blowing up his team after last season's disappointing performance, confident in his belief that the '06 championship core would regroup.

"When you win the Stanley Cup it's not a fluke. That's the first thing," Rutherford said Thursday. "That's the easiest thing for the nay-sayers to say. But this has happened to other teams. It happened to New Jersey. They won the Cup, missed the playoffs the next year, and then went on to win a Cup again.

"I believed in and continued to believe in the nucleus of our team from a talent point of view and from a character point of view, and that's why the team basically stayed intact."

The only real additions were forwards Jeff Hamilton and Matt Cullen - the latter a returnee from the Cup roster after one year with the New York Rangers.

Hamilton and Cullen play the points on the power play and have contributed. Their 24.1 per cent success rate has them in the top five in the NHL right now after placing 25th last season.

"Ron Francis has also done a really good job working with the power play from the first day of camp," Rutherford said of the Hall of Famer centre, who is now the team's assistant GM and director of player development.

The Hurricanes have also shown some early-season resiliency. They lost forwards Andrew Ladd, Erik Cole and Scott Walker to injuries but didn't miss a beat, Hamilton and Chad LaRose are playing bigger roles and call-ups Ryan Bayda and Keith Aucoin have provided a spark.

It's the kind of depth contending teams need to survive a long season.

"It was important for us to get off to a good start after last year," said Rutherford. "We got off to a bad start last year and didn't have a good camp. This year (head coach) Peter (Laviolette) ran a really good camp and the guys were focused from Day 1. As a result we've got off to a good start."

Williams, the pride of Cobourg, Ont., has 13 points (3-10) in 10 games, tops on the team along with linemate Rod Brind'Amour's 13 points (2-11).

"Roddy and I have played quite a few shifts together, probably 98 per cent of my shifts have been with Roddy since I've been here," said Williams, 26. "Roddy and I know where to find each other. We're getting points but the season is long and you're going to have stretches when you're not getting points and you're going to need the other guys to pick it up."

Eric Staal, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Cullen and Hamilton also have had good starts.

"We have that type of balance on this team that every line can score and that's important in this league," said Williams. "It feels good.

"It's only 10 games into the season but the way we've started and the way we've composed ourselves around the rink, we kind of have that quiet confidence back. ... I've been telling all my friends and family, 'We're a real good team this year.'

"Our main goal is the ultimate goal and there's no reason why we can't get back to where we were two years ago."


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