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Thanks to playoffs (and other incidents), Hurricanes enter season of rivalries reborn

All it took was the sight of Tom Wilson screaming at the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench during a preseason game to understand how the entire dynamic of this season will be different. The past will never be far behind. Old enemies are new again. Dormant rivalries have become active.

That’s what making the playoffs does, if anyone had forgotten over the past decade in purgatory: The slights of the postseason are not soon forgotten, perceived or otherwise. And in this particular case, the slights of the offseason as well.

It is a theme of the opening weekend and it will be a theme of the entire season, this settling of scores. The Hurricanes have a few to settle of their own, starting Thursday night thanks to a gift from the NHL schedulers.

There was a time, back in ancient history, when the Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens had a legitimate and venomous rivalry, thanks to two extraordinarily heated and dramatic playoff series in a very short span. Enough time has passed. Almost all of the names have changed. But whatever frisson was still quietly sizzling got a big jolt in July with the Canadiens’ offer sheet for Sebastian Aho.

The terms may have been easily matched, but Aho’s willingness to accept that offer sheet to move along his stalled negotiations here, his agent’s ill-considered pro-Montreal comments and the nonsensical pre-and-post-rejection posturing of Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin give this opener a little more spice than it would have otherwise. Like it once did, many moons ago.

Then it’s on to Washington and the Capitals and Wilson, the latter previously last seen with the closest possible seat to watch Brock McGinn eliminate his team. The Capitals’ response to that Game 7 elimination at the hands of the Hurricanes was to goon it up by adding Radko Gudas and Garnet Hathaway to Wilson, who can at least play a little bit, unlike his fellow predators.

If the preseason finale in Raleigh on Sunday was any indication, this game on Saturday has the potential to be a blood bath, but it might have been that way anyway. One consequence of the Capitals and Hurricanes meeting in the first round -- and everything that happened over those seven games, from Alex Ovechkin’s knockout of Andrei Svechnikov to McGinn’s goal -- was that a generally placid rivalry born of geography and not much else was suddenly imbued with real anger. Finally.

And circle on the calendar December 3, when the Hurricanes first play the Boston Bruins, even if the player who would likely have the most to prove -- former captain Justin Williams, now semi-retired -- won’t likely be on the ice for that one. Even if he does come back, that’s probably too soon. Nevertheless, enough of his teammates have bad memories of that sweep.

That’s what the playoffs can do. There was a time when the Hurricanes brought that anger to the rink to play the Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils and the Buffalo Sabres and the Bruins, still stinging from wounds not quickly healed. Over the many years of The Drought, everything faded to gray. Now some of these games are more vivid than others, a welcome development in the NHL’s 82-game marathon.

There are many benefits still to accrue to the Hurricanes from finally making the playoffs, from winning a round or two, from knocking off the defending champions in the first round. This is just one of them.

Canadiens at Hurricanes

When: 7 p.m., Thursday

Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh

Watch: FS-CR

Listen: WCMC-99.9

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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