RALEIGH, N.C. The final home game of the 2011-12 season for the Carolina Hurricanes wasn't a conclusion to an overall disappointing season.
The 'Canes are now 33-32-16 after beating the Montreal Canadiens in a shootout Thursday night at PNC Arena. They were eliminated from the playoff hunt a week ago, but this night was more like the first game of next season. Actually, about the last 35 have seemed that way.
Once Kirk Muller began implementing his system after being hired Nov. 28, replacing fired former coach Paul Maurice, the Hurricanes started playing quality hockey. It certainly entertained the fans more than Maurice's approach.
The 'Canes have played faster, shifts were shortened to better allow them to maximize giving full effort every time on the ice and the general vibe around the franchise has dramatically changed. This wasn't a total turnaround, but it was impressive nonetheless.
Now the question is, can the Hurricanes build off how they closed this campaign, thus making it a bridge to next season?
"It was difficult through the change of the staff and the new coach, what we went through with new ideas and new philosophies," said captain Eric Staal, who scored the game-winning goal Thursday. "You want that type of tempo to build and continue on into next season. I think we've got some pieces here that are very good players. Now we need to grow as a group.
"I think we're going in the right direction."
This game, in particular, offered little evidence that things went well once Muller's system was embraced and put into action. The Canadiens came into the affair dead last in the Eastern Conference, but they dominated the 'Canes for the first 30 minutes. Carolina played in stretches like each had early tee times tomorrow morning. Then again, they found a way to win, something that wouldn't have happened before Christmas.
The taste fans will carry in their mouths in the offseason Carolina finishes Saturday night at Florida will be how this team came together and closed the season strong. They are now 25-19-12 since Muller took over, and really much better than that once Jeff Skinner returned to full health and Eric Staal finally ended his 10-month slump.
Staal had just five goals and six assists the day Muller was hired, which was 25 games into the season. After Thursday's victory, he has 24 goals and 45 assists and could once again reach the 70-point mark. He was on pace for 16 goals and 34points the day Muller was hired.
Muller made it a point of emphasis to get to know Staal without applying any added pressure to the star. His handling eventually worked.
Skinner moved on from his concussion suffered in December, Cam Ward pulled out of his funk and exhibited some of the best goaltending of his career in recent months and the organization learned a great deal about the other players, young and old, including rookie defenseman Justin Faulk, who was an All-Star and progressively got better.
"Things got better the second half," Staal said. "We've played better hockey, we've won games in this building and entertained our fans Things are going in the right direction here as a group with the staff and everyone in the organization and we're going to be ready and prepared next season to start off right.
"Hopefully we'll continue to add to our lineup and our team and get better."
Carolina needs another scorer, could use another defenseman and might look to bring in a veteran to add gravitas to the grind of the season. After all, this will still be a young team next season.
The front office will do its due diligence, it always does. General manager Jim Rutherford has usually made the right decisions given the financial leash he has to work with. While the 'Canes are well supported, Raleigh isn't exactly a hockey hotbed, nor is it Chicago, New York or Toronto in size. But the franchise has made considerable progress in a place where college hoops gets people's hearts pumping, and occasionally draws tears.
But the Hurricanes have embraced their role in the community and place in the sports hierarchy, which at times has propped them on top. Having won a Stanley Cup in 2006, played for one in 2002 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009 will do that for an organization and its base.
And considering the way this team played over the last half of the season, the genuine optimism in the locker room, the talent coming back and the moves Rutherford will make, there's no reason the 'Canes can't rule its regional landscape again next spring.