RALEIGH — When the NHL schedule for the 2011-2012 season was released in June, the reaction of the Carolina Hurricanes was both immediate and predictable.
Jaws clenched. Eyes narrowed.
The opener took on added significance.
This season will begin just as last season ended - with a home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But tonight's game at the RBC Center carries a little more gravitas than your normal opener.
"It's about payback," Canes captain Eric Staal said Thursday.
"A little bit like a revenge game," added forward Jussi Jokinen.
The Hurricanes went into the final game of the 2010-2011 regular season needing a win against the Lightning to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canes not only lost, but were whipped 6-2.
Since that April night, the Hurricanes have stewed on that loss.
"That anger is still there," Staal said. "It was a bitter pill to swallow at the end of the year. Now, to be lined up against them again, there's a little of that there for me.
"And it's a (Southeast Division) rival. It's a team we want to get two points out of."
Canes coach Paul Maurice, while respecting the skill and talent levels of the Lightning, said he liked the intangibles associated with having the opener against Tampa Bay.
"That's the way you want it because it's still in our room," he said. "You still feel the sting from that loss in the last game, and you want an extra piece of energy. All of the guys are aware of the way it finished. Both teams are going to come out with a lot of heat."
The Hurricanes have new players who were not in the morgue-like dressing room after the loss. To forwards Anthony Stewart, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Tim Brent, who signed free-agent contracts with the Canes after last season, tonight's game is about a fresh start. The same is true for defensemen Tomas Kaberle and Justin Faulk.
Kaberle, 33, was a high-priced addition to the Canes' blue line, signing not long after winning the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins. Faulk, 19, is a rookie who was playing college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth this time last year.
The Canes have nine defensemen on their 23-man roster, and Maurice said Thursday that Jamie McBain, Derek Joslin and rookie Ryan Murphy would not play tonight. Maurice said the defensive pairings have not been set, but it appears Joni Pitkanen will play with Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison with Bryan Allen and Kaberle with Faulk.
The Canes' lines at Thursday's practice had Staal centering Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu, Jokinen at center with Jiri Tlusty and Chad LaRose, Brandon Sutter centering Ponikarovsky and Pat Dwyer, and Brent at center with Stewart and rookie Zac Dalpe.
Cam Ward will start in goal, although Maurice hinted backup goaltender Brian Boucher may get in an early season game - possibly Saturday against the Washington Capitals or Monday against the New Jersey Devils.
Jokinen began training camp on the wing but was shifted to center for the Canes' final preseason game. He joked that center was his "least favorite position" and that he had expressed that to Maurice, smiling and adding, "I don't know if my English is bad or what's going on."
"But I can play every position, every line," Jokinen said. "Whatever position (Maurice) feels is the best spot for me to help the team, I'll be there. "
The Lightning reached the Eastern Conference finals last season. The team will again be led by ageless forward Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier.
"They have a lot of skill, a lot of firepower," said Stewart, who played for the then-Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast last season. "The key is to play tough on their big guns but try to stay out of the (penalty) box. The more we play five-on-five and on the power play, the better it will be.
"I'm personally excited to get the ball rolling. I'm looking forward to a big start."
For the Canes, on a red-letter date.