RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes won't have many enjoyable endings to their seasons until they figure out how to start them better.
A horrible beginning to the season essentially eliminated them from the playoff picture by Christmas. It also led to the coaching change that defined the year, sparked a second-half turnaround and created a change in mindset that has the Hurricanes feeling pretty good about 2012-13.
They'll just have to avoid stumbling again once those first pucks are dropped in the fall.
"It's easy to be really into the games from the All-Star break on, because that's when it's all written out there, where you stand, and there are playoff-type games where it gets intense," coach Kirk Muller said. "We've got to have that mindset in September."
Carolina wrapped up another season outside the playoff picture with a 4-1 loss Saturday night at Florida. That ended a year most memorable for the hiring of Muller, who wound up arriving in Raleigh for his first NHL head coaching job mainly because the Hurricanes simply didn't have that kind of focus under Paul Maurice.
Carolina was 8-13-4 in late November, when Maurice was fired by the club for the second time in less than a decade. The Hurricanes immediately announced the hiring of Muller — a 44-year-old six-time All-Star center who won a Stanley Cup as a player with Montreal in 1993 and spent the previous five seasons on the Canadiens' staff before he got his first head coaching job at any level with Milwaukee of the AHL.
The Hurricanes bought in to his message of accountability and effort, making a last-gasp push toward the postseason before falling short and missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six years since the franchise's only Cup in 2006.
But no player blossomed under Muller's guidance quite like Eric Staal.
After registering just five goals and six assists in the 25 games before the coaching change, Staal rediscovered his scoring touch. He was at better than a point-a-game pace under Muller, with 19 goals and 40 assists in the final 57 games.
"Things got better in the second half. We played better hockey, we won games, we won games (at home), entertained our fans, but it doesn't matter — as players and as fans, we want to be in the playoffs, and we're not there this season," Staal said.
"But you'd like to think we're going in the right direction as a group and as a staff and as an organization," he added. "We're going to be ready and prepared next season to start off right, and hopefully continue to add to our lineup and our team, and get better and get back to where we need to be."
Many of the most important Hurricanes are under contract for 2012-13. Both unrestricted free agents of note are on defense: Bryan Allen, who was acquired in a February 2011 trade with Florida, and Jaroslav Spacek, a 37-year-old who was picked up from Montreal in December during Carolina's dumping of free-agent bust Tomas Kaberle.
The Hurricanes have a corps of young defensemen they hope will develop into difference-makers — led by rookie-of-the-year candidate Justin Faulk and 2011 first-round draft pick Ryan Murphy — so it's unclear how hard they'll try to re-sign those veterans.
Center Jiri Tlusty, who had career highs of 17 goals and 19 assists, is a restricted free agent, meaning the Hurricanes can match any offer he receives. Forward Tuomo Ruutu and defenseman Tim Gleason could have walked away on July 1, but instead they signed long-term extensions with the club during the season.
Many of the pieces are in place for Carolina to make a run at a playoff spot. A second-half surge in which the Hurricanes escaped last place in the Eastern Conference and threatened to crack the top eight was evidence of that.
They know they don't have any margin of error to overcome the kind of slump that marked their first half.
"I think everybody in here is disappointed that we're not making the playoffs, but it is important that we finish the season strong," goalie Cam Ward said. "We've done a lot of good things, we've made a lot of strides since Muller's taken over, since Christmas, and you want to keep heading in that direction."