Originally posted on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 3/30/12
RALEIGH, N.C. --- The celebration outside of newly-named PNC Arena prior to Friday night's Carolina Hurricanes hockey game had a Stanley Cup fever feel to it. The folks here in hoops heaven are actually familiar with the NHL's playoffs, as they rejoiced in winning a Cup in 2006 and played for one in 2002. The Canes advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, as well. So the feel walking through the parking lot, with tailgaters everywhere, and up to the arena while a season-ending fan fest was going on complete with games, raffles, and a live band blaring "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses, gave the feeling that something big was taking place later in the evening. In a way, it did. "It does seem like more than a regular season game that really doesn't mean much," said Canes fan Corey Sievers, who attends about 12 games a season. "I think it says a lot about how people appreciate the way the team has played, even if it doesn't make the playoffs." The Hurricanes entered their game versus the Winnipeg Jets clinging to slight hopes they could manufacture their way into the upcoming playoffs, as they were nine points out with a week left in the season. That, in and of itself, is not a minor miracle. It's a pretty big one given where this team was 124 days ago. Kirk Muller took over for Paul Maurice on Nov. 28 and Carolina was reeling. Not only were the Hurricanes (8-13-4 with 20 points at the time) not playing well, much of the fun had been sucked out of the daily grind of an NHL season. These are guys who pride themselves on embracing and getting through the grind. It's part of their DNA once in the NHL. With Muller, though, the organization brought in someone who didn't initially make sweeping changes, which was appreciated in the locker room. He observed and then systematically made adjustments, and they varied. Style of play was one, but so was relaxing star Eric Staal, who was off to the worst start of his stellar career. Fast forward four months and the Canes are having fun again and so are the fans. Well over 18,000 of them packed the arena Friday, and the players are certainly noticing there was a playoff hint to the surroundings. "The weather's like it," defenseman Jay Harrison said. "It's great to see the building full, and the support that we get is fantastic. We certainly don't take it for granted "Perhaps the results aren't where every fan would like them to be, but I think fans, from the feedback we've gotten, are very excited about moving forward in the future and the style of hockey this team is playing." Carolina is 23-18-12 since hiring Muller, and keep in mind the team still struggled for the first month he was in charge, in part because it suffered several injuries to key players, including a concussion by Jeff Skinner. The Hurricanes blew a 3-1 lead Friday, falling to Winnipeg 4-3 on a gal 16 seconds into overtime. Staal scored on a fast break in which he basically did a 360 as he approached the goal, fooling the goaltender and defender. The fans always love when he scores probably more than anyone else on the roster, and they like when the team gets into a few skirmishes, as it usually reflects having the proper fight. So they think, anyway. The loss was a negative but the effort wasn't. Staal says it doesn't matter what the team's playoff status is the Canes were officially eliminated from contention with the loss the honor of the sport remains a priority. "It's difficult where we're at in our season," Staal said. "We just have to come to the rink and work and continue to compete and be ready to play the right way. It's easy to go out there and skate around when it's like this. You have to show your mental toughness and play the game the right way and the way we want to play it when we get back to where we want to be with this team." That's another reason the fans have embraced this team. They see the work, the see the determination, and they see how far this group has come, and they feel a connection to it. And the neat things is the direction Muller has Carolina headed, playoff simulations won't be needed next season.
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