The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

For Hurricanes, new division could mean bigger crowds, tougher challenge to make playoffs

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RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes could have an easier time filling their arena this season — and a tougher time getting back to the playoffs.

The NHL's realignment meant the end of the Southeast Division and placed the Hurricanes into the new Metropolitan Division.

A division packed with some of the league's most popular teams — Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, both New York teams, New Jersey and Washington — might lead to bigger crowds.

But it also figures to make ending their irksome post-season drought a much bigger challenge.

"It's going to be tough. It's a good division," defenceman Justin Faulk said. "Obviously, there's a lot of teams that are pretty good. ... But we're looking forward to it. Every team's good in the league.

"I don't think you go into any game thinking you can just win every game," he added. "Every night, anyone can win, and I think we're pretty confident with the group that we have in here to do a pretty good job."

Since winning its only Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina has reached the playoffs just once, in 2009. Among teams in the current configuration of the Eastern Conference, only Toronto and Columbus have not made the post-season since then.

That hasn't exactly been easy for the players to digest, goalie Cam Ward said.

"You can already sense the attitude. ... Guys are hungry and excited to get things going," Ward said.

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Five things to know about the Hurricanes' first season in the Metro Division:

BLUE-LINE BLUES: Carolina once again made upgrading its defensive corps a priority this off-season, though a lingering injury threatened to undercut its moves. The Hurricanes brought in free-agent Mike Komisarek and picked up Andrej Sekera in a draft-day trade for D Jamie McBain, whom the front office had soured upon. A day after it was learned that key D Joni Pitkanen will miss the season with a slow-to-heal broken heel, Carolina signed free-agent Ron Hainsey to a one-year deal.

NOT AN INFIRMARY WARD: The Hurricanes need Ward to stay healthy because the team's tailspin last season coincided with what turned out to be a season-ending injury to their All-Star goalie. Before he sprained his left knee on March 3, the Hurricanes were in prime position to contend for a division title. Carolina wound up finishing with the league's second-worst goals-against average (3.31). Veteran Anton Khudobin, who signed a free-agent deal in July to back up Ward, looks like an upgrade over Dan Ellis, who signed with Dallas over the summer.

SEMIN'S SECOND ACT: Alexander Semin shed all those unflattering labels that stuck on him during in Washington and fit right in last season with the Hurricanes, who rewarded him with a five-year, $35 million deal in March. He was second on the team with 44 points (13 goals, 31 assists) and teamed with captain Eric Staal and breakout winger Jiri Tlusty to form Carolina's unquestioned top line, which produced nearly 43 per cent of the team's goals, not counting shootouts. Now the question now becomes, can he continue to produce at the same high level now that he has the most lucrative contract of his career?

CAN JORDAN RULE?: The Hurricanes could use some more scoring punch from their major acquisition of 2012 — Jordan Staal. The younger brother of the team captain had just 10 goals and 21 assists last season, and Carolina hopes he has become fully acclimated to the organization. The right combination could be putting him on a line with Tuomo Ruutu, another physical forward.

NOT-SO-SPECIAL TEAMS: Carolina has struggled lately both when it has had an extra skater and when it's been down a man. The Hurricanes' power play ranked 27th in the league last season while their penalty kill was 28th. Those numbers have to improve if they're going to bring an end to that post-season drought.

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Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/joedyap

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