Then Paul Maurice worked his magic behind the bench.
"We could feel it within our room, we could feel it on our bench, we could feel it on our plane" former Carolina goaltender Kevin Weekes said. "And we knew that we were a prepared group, we knew that we were a committed group, we knew we were a group that believed, and Coach Maurice went a long way in creating that atmosphere."
Maurice got that group to the Cup final as part of an impressive tenure in Carolina. Almost 12 years after that run, Maurice on Sunday replaced Claude Noel as coach of the Winnipeg Jets, and a handful of his former Hurricanes players consider it a good fit based on what he did for them.
"I think he's a very underrated coach," said Hall of Famer and former Carolina captain Ron Francis, who also worked as an assistant under Maurice. "He's a very bright guy, he's good at assessing the talent he has and then structuring the system that he believes will get the most out of the lineup that he has on a game-in, game-out basis."
Maurice has his fair share of issues to deal with to fix what ails the Jets, who are 10 points out of the Western Conference's final playoff spot after losing five in a row.
"I would imagine the strategy for him, he'd be a little bit of a detective going in there," said Jeff O'Neill who played for Maurice in Carolina and Toronto. "He's going to find out what the problems are and he's going to address the issues. And that's probably the first order of business."
It's not exactly new business, either. When Maurice became Whalers coach early in the 1995-96 season, he inherited a Hartford team that missed the playoffs in each of the past three years.
The Jets missed the playoffs in their first two seasons in Winnipeg and haven't made it since 2006-07 as the Atlanta Thrashers. At least it's a familiar challenge for Maurice.
"It almost works in his favour that this is not a new situation for him," said former defenceman Aaron Ward. "He's never really walked into a situation where he's had a cupboard full of unbelievable talent."
Winnipeg doesn't have unbelievable talent, but there's a core in place beginning with captain Andrew Ladd, U.S. Olympian Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien. Those early Whalers teams were led by Geoff Sanderson, Andrew Cassels and Keith Primeau.
Maurice didn't turn things around right away, but by the second season of the Hurricanes after the move to North Carolina, they were in the playoffs thanks to contributions from Primeau, Sami Kapanen, Francis and goaltender Arturs Irbe.
The 2002 run to the Cup final was Maurice's most memorable achievement, taking an unheralded group led by Francis and Rod Brind'Amour to within three victories of knocking off the talent-rich Detroit Red Wings. Even today, Francis wondered what would've happened if Carolina didn't lost Game 3 in triple overtime.
"I think he just had the guys believing that we were capable of doing it," said Francis, who's now vice president of hockey operations for the Hurricanes. "We kept everything sort of simple and the focus on the direction it needed to be kept on, and as a result you had a team that believes in itself, believes in each other and some may say overachieved, but not according to the guys in that locker room or the coaching staff. We certainly believed we belonged right to the end."
Maurice isn't the same man he was when he got his first NHL head-coaching job at the age of 28 or even the same from 2002. Maurice has coached 1,084 games with the Whalers, Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs and isn't a fresh-faced youngster anymore.
"Obviously he knows what works and what doesn't work now," O'Neill said. "I think maybe when he was younger he thought he had to be a hard ass all the time for guys to kind of buy in and believe it, and then later on the message didn't have to be that because he was established, he had coached so many games."
Maurice is 46 now, armed with experience from coaching Metallurg in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and doing some television analysis. Francis worked on Maurice's staff in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and saw how he matured and changed over time.
Francis has no doubt Maurice has adjusted with a changing league.
"He's very bright, he's a good student of the game and he's watching what's happening and how things are evolving," Francis said. "He incorporates that into his game plan and his systems. There's no question he doesn't get stuck on one particular thing but more or less moves with the times."
Times now are about youth, as Weekes pointed out the NHL has never been younger. Maurice will be charged with figuring out how to best use defenceman Jacob Trouba, centre Mark Scheifele and others in the pipeline in Winnipeg.
Based on what Maurice did at the junior level, including winning the 1995 OHL title with the Detroit Jr. Red Wings, and how much he accomplished with the Hurricanes, his former players know where his strengths lie. Most notably, he can maximize the talent at his disposal.
"It's one thing to coach somebody up, it's another thing to just coach and it's another thing to coach somebody down," Weekes said. "Paul Maurice is somebody that I've seen, and one of the few that I've seen as a head coach in my time, that coached you up."
If the Jets hope to make up a substantial deficit to get back into contention this season or at least make strides for the future, it'll be up to Maurice to coach up like he did in Carolina.
That job starts with creating an identity for a team that has been lacking one. Those Hurricanes teams are a nice blue print.
"I think it's a team that works extremely hard," Francis said. "I think it's a team that tries to be very solid in its own end and then try to get in on the forecheck as quickly and as aggressively as possible. Those are some of the trademarks that he really liked to incorporate into his team."
Personal relationships also are a trademark of Maurice's coaching. Weekes said Maurice knew how to treat players as players and as people, and Francis lauded his "open-door policy," which could benefit Ladd.
"At any point as a captain, if I wanted to walk in and have a conversation with him, I felt comfortable doing that," Francis said. "We could talk about everything from my individual game to team concepts and systems or strengths and weaknesses and how to adjust things. And it was no different being a part of the coaching staff. He gave everybody a voice. You're allowed to kind of say your piece and what you thought, and at the end of the day it was his job as head coach to make the final decision. But he certainly gave you that opportunity to express what you felt."
Maurice certainly hasn't been perfect. During his 13 full seasons as an NHL head coach, his teams made the playoffs five times and missed eight.
But Weekes, who was part of just one Maurice-led playoff team, praised him as "hands-down" the best coach he ever played for.
"He set the right tone with the staff, certainly with all of our players, and for the most part you'd have to say he put all of us in a position to succeed," Weekes said. "Everything was structured, our work ethic as a team was through the roof, and I think that really reflected our coaches, starting with Coach Maurice, just in terms of the preparation, the practice detail, the tempo — us doing all the little things that it took the be successful."
— Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.