When the NHL schedule was released in the fall, it's a safe bet the meeting between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes on the eve of the Olympic break generated zero passion in the hockey community.
The game at 5 p.m. today in Raleigh, N.C., features a pair of revelations.
The Sabres and Hurricanes were picked by most of the hockey cognoscenti to vie for this year's top draft choice. Those prognosticators clearly were caught unawares. Carolina and Buffalo are more likely to compete for a Stanley Cup than a lottery pick.
Through the first half of the season, they were the most improved teams. The Hurricanes had 20 more points than they had through 41 games in 2003-04, while the Sabres had 19 more points.
The Hurricanes were the first team to reach 80 points this season and are atop the Eastern Conference at 38-14 with four overtime or shootout losses. They have seven Olympians on their roster, having recently added four-time All-Star center Doug Weight from the St. Louis Blues.
The Sabres, at 35-15 with four overtime or shootout losses, went into Saturday night's game against the Florida Panthers in HSBC Arena six points behind the Hurricanes and three points behind the Northeast Division-leading Ottawa Senators.
Both teams playing today have visions of making a run at the Stanley Cup. Folks in the Research Triangle are buzzing about the Hurricanes almost as much as they are college hoops and NASCAR, reminiscent of the ambience surrounding the team when it reached the finals in 2002.
"It's out there. You can feel it," Carolina center Kevyn Adams told the Raleigh News and Observer.
Adams knows what an NHL playoff atmosphere feels like, having grown up in Clarence. He skated for Carolina in the 2002 finals.
"People are coming up to us excited about watching hockey, excited for the community, excited for us," said Adams, who played for the Wheatfield Blades and Niagara Scenics (now the Buffalo Junior Sabres). "As players, that's what you want. You work hard, and you hope people will notice."
It's hard not to. The Hurricanes already have broken their franchise record for wins, with three more than the season they went to the finals. They are only 11 points away from reaching their record for points and have 28 games to play.
Jochen Hecht is keeping it real.
The injured Sabres forward, knocked out of the Olympics after suffering a sprained right knee Thursday, didn't let emotions impair perspective while lamenting his bad luck.
"We didn't have much chance to win the Olympics anyway," said Hecht, one of only seven NHL players on Germany's squad. "Our goal was to beat Switzerland and Italy, and make it to the quarterfinals."
Hecht relishes international action, having played in 15 major tournaments, including two Olympics, since 1994. But he claimed he was glad the injury came when it did. He'll be out two to three weeks and could be ready to skate when the Sabres return from the Olympic break March 1.
"I'm still sad," Hecht said. "I want to go, but I can't be sitting at home thinking about it or leaving my head hanging. I'll look at the bright side. I have two weeks to spend time with my family."
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff shuffled the lines against Florida. Taylor Pyatt was promoted to left wing on Chris Drury's line with Mike Grier. Derek Roy skated between Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov. Jiri Novotny moved to center between J.P. Dumont and Ales Kotalik. Paul Gaustad centered Andrew Peters and Jason Pominville.
Ruff also went with two defenseman on the power play after getting burned for short-handed goals in each of the previous two games.