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The Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes from postseason contention on the final day of the 2010-11 regular season and eventually finished one victory short of their first Stanley Cup finals appearance in seven years.
After near misses by both teams last season, each begins anew as they open their campaigns Friday night in Raleigh, N.C.
Tampa Bay finished fifth in the Eastern Conference last season, and its season-ending 6-2 victory April 9 kept the Hurricanes home after 82 games for the second straight season.
With 103 points, the Lightning (46-25-11) improved 23 points from 2009-10 under first-year general manager Steve Yzerman. It was their highest total since a 106-point season en route to winning the 2004 Stanley Cup.
Martin St. Louis finished second in the NHL with 99 points and was a Hart Trophy finalist for the league's MVP. He said given the surprising turnaround and last season's playoff run, which ended with a 1-0 loss to Boston in Game 7 of the East finals, the Lightning won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.
"I think expectations have always been high. Are they higher? I don't know. Our goal is to win the Cup," St. Louis told the team's official website. "I do think people will be a little more cautious about us and more prepared for us. We will just go about our business and try to make it one series further."
Steven Stamkos, the 21-year-old phenom who signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract in the offseason, scored 45 goals to give him an NHL-best 96 over the past two seasons.
Stamkos hopes he can maintain his stellar offensive skills while becoming more of a complete player in 2011-12.
"Obviously, you want to produce offensively," Stamkos said. "But I want to be a good two-way player that can be counted on in all situations."
His quest begins against a Carolina team which finished two points behind the New York Rangers for the East's final playoff spot.
The Hurricanes (40-31-11) went 5-1-1 over their final seven games, narrowly missing their first playoff berth since advancing to the conference finals in 2009.
Captain Eric Staal enters his eighth season after scoring a team-leading 76 points as Carolina added some veteran leadership to bolster its young and talented core.
Jeff Skinner, 19, won the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year after totaling 31 goals and 63 points.
"We're another year older. I think that you need to take that into account," Staal said. "We changed from an older team to a younger team last year, and we had new faces - a lot of guys that hadn't played many games in the NHL at all. Now we're another year in and ... we'd like to think we're another year stronger, wiser, and that will make us a better hockey club."
To compliment their youngsters, the Hurricanes acquired 33-year-old defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who won the Stanley Cup with Boston, and signed 31-year-old former Los Angeles forward Alexei Ponikarovsky.
"The two guys standing between the posts ... We've got world-class goaltending," coach Paul Maurice told the Hurricanes' official website. "Arguably the best goaltending in the National Hockey League."
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher may argue that notion. Veteran Dwayne Roloson, 42, went 18-12-4 with a 2.56 GAA after being acquired from the New York Islanders on Jan. 1, then won 10 more games in the postseason. The Lightning also added Mathieu Garon, who served as the backup in Columbus last season.
"It is goaltending that has a lot of experience," Boucher said. "Both goaltenders have seen a lot. Right now, on paper, we have goaltending that is supposed to be stable. Stable goaltending, that makes a difference."
St. Louis had three goals and nine assists in six games last season versus the Hurricanes, and his 34 lifetime goals are his most against any opponent. Tampa Bay has won three of its last four at Carolina.