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During a regular season filled with changes, the New Jersey Devils closed strong and had plenty of momentum through the first round of the playoffs - until they ran into the Carolina Hurricanes.
In a rematch of one of last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, the Devils open their season Friday against the Hurricanes at the RBC Center.
Last season began a new and tumultuous era for New Jersey, winners of three Stanley Cups since the 1994-95 season. Longtime defensemen Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko retired, and fellow blueliner Scott Niedermayer signed as a free agent with Anaheim.
High-scoring center Patrik Elias was sidelined until January with hepatitis A, and coach Larry Robinson, citing his own health concerns, unexpectedly resigned on Dec. 19. Five months earlier, Robinson was introduced to replace Pat Burns, who was diagnosed with cancer.
General manager Lou Lamoriello took over behind the bench, and the Devils responded, winning nine in a row from Jan. 3-21 and ending the regular season on an 11-game winning streak to win the Atlantic Division title. New Jersey then swept the New York Rangers in the opening round of the postseason, but lost to the eventual-champion Hurricanes in five games.
"We've grown a lot from last year," said goaltender Martin Brodeur, who enters his 13th season with New Jersey after tying his career high of 43 wins last season. "This year they didn't make tons of big changes, so it's the same guys coming back.
"So we don't see any reason why we shouldn't be as successful as when we were able to turn it around."
In June, Lamoriello hired Claude Julien, who coached Montreal for parts of three seasons before being fired on Jan. 14. A defensive-minded coach, Julien said that philosophy won't change.
"The way the Devils have traditionally played fits right into what I believe," he said in July. "This is a team that has had success, not so much because of the individual players, but because of how they play as a team."
During his illness-shortened regular season, Elias averaged better than a point per game, finishing with 16 goals and 29 assists. He opened the postseason with a six-point game versus New York, but had just one goal and four assists versus the 'Canes.
In July, Elias was rewarded with a seven-year, $42 million contract, and he was named the seventh captain on team history on Thursday.
"There is no question Patrik has demonstrated throughout the years that he is a leader of this team on and off the ice," Lamoriello said. "He became the logical choice."
Center Scott Gomez, who posted career highs of 33 goals and 84 points, is back after being awarded $5 million for this season in arbitration.
On Tuesday, the Devils re-signed Brian Gionta, who set team records with 48 goals and 24 power-play goals last season, to a three-year, $12 million deal after Lamoriello created salary cap room by dealing defenseman Vladimir Malakhov to San Jose.
The Hurricanes raised their Stanley Cup banner during a 20-minute pregame ceremony Wednesday, but lost their season-opener 3-2 in a shootout to Buffalo - a team they eliminated to reach the Cup finals.
"Obviously this is a game you'd like to win," defenseman Mike Commodore said. "You'd like to win your home opener and definitely when you're raising the banner. It just didn't work out.
"It was an amazing year, but now it's over. The banner's raised and it's time to do it again."
Erik Cole and Eric Staal each scored, and Ray Whitney assisted on both goals for the Hurricanes, who went 8-2 in shootouts last season.
Carolina used a potent offense last season to win the title and ranked third in the NHL with 286 goals - and average of 3.5 per game. Staal led the team with 45 goals and 100 points.
"We've got the experience, we've got guys who will make sure everyone's focused and ready for this season," said Staal, who had three goals and four assists in the postseason against the Devils.
The Devils and Hurricanes split their four regular-season matchups last season, with New Jersey winning the last two. Gionta had two goals and three assists, while Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour had three goals and one assist.
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