Hurricanes face Habs

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Four games, all victories, with a combined margin of 25-9. For the Carolina Hurricanes, their season series with Montreal couldn’t have gone much better.

Trying to carry that momentum over the playoffs is the difficult part.

“It doesn’t mean a thing,” Carolina defenseman Bret Hedican said Friday. “We’ve got to bring our best game to win in the playoffs, no matter who we play.”

Certainly, there is some truth to that. The NHL postseason is a grind that runs until the middle of June, with a minuscule margin for error in each game and possible elimination looming in each best-of-seven round.

The Hurricanes, who finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, take the first step Saturday night against the Canadiens in the opener of the first round. Montreal backed into the playoffs a bit with four losses in the final six games following an eight-game winning streak.

“I think we know who’s the favorite in the series, but it’s a good challenge for us,” said Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet, who gets the nod in Game 1 over David Aebischer.

“We’d like to beat the odds obviously and give our best and make them think after that first game.”

Huet wasn’t saddled with any of those four losses to Carolina this season, with now-departed Jose Theodore getting the first three before his trade to Colorado. The final one came March 16, a 5-1 rout in Montreal that left the Canadiens 31-25-9.

They won 11 of their final 17 games to earn the seventh seed in the East.

“Montreal, I’ll guarantee you they’re not going to walk over and give us the games,” Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. “They’re going to be ready to play, and we’re going to have to fight hard for the win.”

The Hurricanes didn’t finish strongly, losing four of their final five in the regular season. Injuries likely played a role in that rough stretch, as did facing teams desperate for victories.

Carolina clinched its spot in the postseason back on March 27, then secured the Southeast Division title four days later. For the past few weeks, getting ready for the playoffs has been the only goal.

“This team has 52 wins for a reason,” said center Doug Weight, who was brought over in a trade with St. Louis in January. “We got off the beaten path a bit, but we plan on bringing our A’ game.”

The Hurricanes still aren’t completely healthy – Erik Cole remains out with a fractured vertebra and fellow left wing Ray Whitney is day-to-day with a lower body injury. – but building depth was why veterans such as Weight and Mark Recchi were acquired.

It would be nice to have everyone, but Laviolette isn’t making excuses.

“I still think our team is an excellent team, and there’s more than enough pieces in there,” he said.

The Canadiens made plenty of changes during the season, too. Coach Claude Julien was fired Jan. 14 and replaced by general manager Bob Gainey, with former team captain Guy Carbonneau promised the job at the end of the season. Longtime goalie Theodore also left town, switching teams with Aebischer in early March.

Still, Gainey was in charge during three of the ugly losses to Carolina, and Aebischer was in net for the final one.

“Well, I don’t think looking solely at our four games with them is really a good indicator,” Gainey said. “We’ll have to play like we’ve played in some of the stretches since the Olympic break. If we get that kind of play then we’re going to be a good competitive team.”

Laviolette wants the same from Carolina.

“There’s an expectation for us to win, but I don’t think that expectation comes from our record against them,” he said. “I think it comes more from a confidence of, when we did play our game, how we were able to play and how we were able to handle teams.”

AP-ES-04-21-06 1622EDT

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