RALEIGH — Anthony Stewart came into the dressing room after practice with his practice jersey soaked from neck to waist. One of his Carolina Hurricanes teammates had loosened the cap on a water bottle on the bench and then vanished.
"Literally, I almost drowned," Stewart complained, as his teammates chuckled.
It's been a long time since anyone on the team felt like playing pranks. But as the Hurricanes start to show some progress under Kirk Muller, with Thursday's four-goal first period and 5-2 win at the Tampa Bay Lightning the latest example, it's only natural that they start savoring it a little bit as well.
"When you get a game like last night, you don't let your guard down, but you can at least enjoy it a little bit," Muller said Friday.
In three of their past four games - a home win over the Buffalo Sabres last Sunday, a narrow loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday and Thursday night's boisterous win at the Lightning - the Hurricanes have played with the heart and hustle Muller wants to see from them.
And if they needed a reminder of how quickly things can turn ugly if they slack off, Saturday's miserable 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators should do nicely.
Still, for the first time since Muller took over in November, the Hurricanes are showing sustained progress. They're tougher to play against. They're playing with more confidence. They're even scoring a few goals. It's no coincidence that their improved play has come hand-in-hand with that of captain Eric Staal, who has 13 points in the past seven games, but with Jeff Skinner's return imminent, there's actually reason for some optimism in the dressing room.
"There's a lot of things I see that I like," Muller said. "Like I've said before, the common denominator, and it's everywhere, is if you don't compete and you don't outwork your opponent and you don't play hard consistently, it's really hard to win. I keep telling these guys, if you bring that effort to the games, and you play with a focus and pay attention to detail, you're in the games and then it's a matter if you get the right bounce or not, like the Philly game."
If the Hurricanes have indeed turned a corner, they'll find out quickly. With the Boston Bruins in town tonight and a quick turnaround to play at the Washington Capitals on Sunday, the Hurricanes have absolutely no margin for error this weekend.
They also have nothing to lose.
The odds against the Hurricanes making the playoffs this season are enormous - they went into Friday night's games nine points out of a playoff spot, while giving up four games in hand - but that doesn't mean a foundation can't be built for the future.
In the spring of 2004, two months after Peter Laviolette took over for Paul Maurice, the Hurricanes went 11-7-7 to close out the season, a 95-point pace, even after trading away Danny Markov, Bob Boughner and Ron Francis. (The Markov trade brought Justin Williams in return.)
Hopefully, there won't be another year lost to the lockout again - although Carolina's young prospects would certainly benefit from a year in the AHL the way Staal and Cam Ward did - and there were many changes along the way, but that strong spring helped to set the tone for the fall of 2005.
The playoffs may be out of reach this season, but there's everything to gain for the future - and 37 games still to play over the next three months. It'll be better for everyone if there's reason to have a little fun.