Carolina's celebration a double-edged sword
RALEIGH, N.C. -- It took exactly four minutes and fifteen seconds for the Carolina Hurricanes' Stanley Cup banner to make its way into the rafters of the RBC Center.
By the time the banner had completed its journey, the Hurricanes' coaching staff, scouts and training staff had departed the ice and the players had left their perch along the blue line to warm up.
No, that white, red and black banner will be a constant, vivid reminder for every Carolina Hurricane of what was spent in capturing the team's first Stanley Cup, a constant reminder of the indelible nature of winning the most difficult of all pro sports' championships.
But in the same way the raising of a theater's curtain marks the beginning of the next show, the next act, the banner's place in the rafters also symbolizes a separation between what was and what will be.
"It was a proud moment to be wearing a Hurricanes jersey," Carolina forward Erik Cole said after the Hurricanes' Cup defense began with a 3-2 shootout loss to Buffalo on Wednesday night. "But we're not trying to dwell on anything in the past. Everything moves forward from here."
In the coming weeks and months, players and coaches might look at that banner and find solace in the memories it holds, perhaps use it as sustenance when the path becomes less obvious. The challenge will be in doing so without being consumed or lulled by those same memories.
It is not an easy task.
"The reason why it's hard to repeat is because it's just damn hard to do it once," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "And you see it, you see it all the time, what it takes and how hard it is and the commitment that's needed from the team and the calls and the bounces and the good health and everything else that goes with it.
"That's what makes it hard. We're on the same playing field as ... everybody. Everybody is leaving camp thinking, 'We have a shot, we've got a chance.' "
There are several constants that conspire against teams and their defense of the Stanley Cup. Since 1988, only the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings have managed to defend their championship successfully.
First, there is the challenge of re-creating the drive and desire necessary to win a Cup. The Hurricanes played their final game of the season on June 19. Not counting preseason games, it was their 107th game of the season. Now, 3½ months later, they are being asked to do it again.
The Hurricanes turned over about a quarter of their roster since June 19. They didn't have a rookie camp and played fewer preseason games than they did a year ago. But Laviolette remains steadfast in his desire to maintain a sameness to the proceedings here, resisting any temptation to try to change things up to try to beat the odds.
"I think I only know how to do things one way. I don't know how to do them a different way," Laviolette said. "The best way to defend it is to get your team on the same page, get them playing hard and to play hard and execute well.
"We can't play for the Cup on Wednesday night. That was kind of the same message we sent last year. That's why we kept emphasizing the regular season. It's why we kept pointing to the leaderboard; it's why we tried to get first in our division, first in the conference. Those are the only things you can play for."
Before the banner appeared Wednesday night, players watched intently as video clips from their playoff run were shown on the arena scoreboard.
The Hurricanes erasing a 2-0 series deficit against Montreal in the first round.
The Hurricanes squeaking past an injury-depleted Buffalo team in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Hurricanes stealing Game 1 of the Cup finals against Edmonton on a late Rod Brind'Amour goal.
And finally the celebration after the seventh and deciding game in that memorable series.
So much energy and emotion spent along the way.
"I think it brought chills to a lot of guys on our team," said Eric Staal of the ceremony. "A lot comes flooding back, a lot of chills. But as soon as the puck dropped, everyone was, 'Forget that, let's go.'"
The other factor the Hurricanes will face is that for the first time in franchise history, they are the hunted.
"We've got that target on our sleeves now," said netminder Cam Ward, who was stellar in stopping 30 of 32 Buffalo shots.
"It's a new challenge for us," added defenseman Mike Commodore, who was the unofficial keeper of the Cup this summer, attending nine Cup celebrations.
"Well, this year, there's going to be no sneaking up on anybody. It's going to be teams gunning for us," Commodore said. "Everybody wants to take a shot at the defending champions. It was like us when we played Tampa Bay last year. It's just a different mind-set, and we're going to have to be ready to roll."
That's the thing about that banner, the double-edged sword of its presence. It will become just as powerful a beacon to every opposing team that comes into the RBC Center.
Such as the Sabres, who took a 2-1 lead into the third period of the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals in this building in the spring, but -- in the face of crippling injuries to their blue-line corps -- could not hold on.
To come back into this building and play on opening night was both painful and inspiring.
"We could hear [from the Sabres' dressing room] how loud it was," Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury said. "It was well-deserved. You win the Cup, you take as much time as you want, be as loud as you want. That's a special thing. We were fine with it."
Maybe that's why this first regular-season game was so compelling.
The Hurricanes, full of emotion, rolling early, outshooting the Sabres 11-1 at one point. And the Sabres, eager to prove there were lessons learned in this building last spring, bouncing back and turning it into a terrific contest.
Rust? Not here, not on this night. And the Hurricanes had better get used to such competitions.
"It's a special night for them," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, the defending Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year, said beforehand. "It really is a closing ceremony for a helluva season."
And perhaps that's the best way to put it -- closing ceremonies. For the other 29 teams, there's the belief that the Hurricanes can be replaced, and there's an equally passionate belief in Raleigh that they can return to this place again.
Said Ward: "It's time to turn the page."
And so the banner hangs in the rafters, where it belongs. And the game is on the ice, and the distance between the two is surprisingly great.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.