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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

It's almost as if Cole never left Carolina

Wednesday, 04.22.2009 / 2:00 PM / 2009 Playoffs Conference Quarterfinals

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

"Usually you worry about things when you make a trade with 17 games left as a coach, because there's such a small window to get the kind of chemistry we needed to make it to the playoffs. But not with Erik Cole. It's almost like he never left. In only his second game back, he has four assists and Eric Staal had four goals and two assists in a big win at Tampa Bay."
-- Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice

In Edmonton, Erik Cole's career simply stalled. Nothing of note. Back in Carolina after being obtained in a three-team trade March 4, there's been a different kind of Staal in his career.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound power forward from Oswego, N.Y., who was asked to play left wing in Edmonton after six productive seasons on his off-wing with the Hurricanes, is back on track after being traded to the Oilers for defenseman Joni Pitkanen on July 1.

His presence in the Carolina lineup was almost immediately felt -- 2 goals and 13 assists in 17 games as the Canes posted a 12-3-2 record since his return.

"Usually you worry about things when you make a trade with 17 games left as a coach, because there's such a small window to get the kind of chemistry we needed to make it to the playoffs. But not with Erik Cole. It's almost like he never left," coach Paul Maurice explained. "In only his second game back, he has four assists and Eric Staal had four goals and two assists in a big win at Tampa Bay.

"To me, Cole and Staal have always had an explosively dangerous chemistry offensively."

Locked in a taut battle with the New Jersey Devils heading into Thursday’s Game 5 (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN2, RIS), Cole is still looking for his first point.

The return to Carolina was so comfortable for the 30-year-old Cole that he moved right back into the house that he and his family left when they went to Edmonton.

"When I left the Oilers, it was hard to hide the smile from my face," Cole said. "I was frustrated that things didn't work out in Edmonton. But there weren't words to describe how very easy, very comfortable, it was to be coming back home to Raleigh."

GM Jim Rutherford admitted that Staal, who had been missing a beat in his stride, had been dropping hints to him about how nice it would be -- for everyone -- to have Cole back in the Carolina lineup. Especially at a time when it was no cinch that the Hurricanes would even qualify for the playoffs.

"Paul Maurice was pushing to add a player who drives hard to the net and he brought up Erik's name a couple of times," Rutherford explained. "With Justin Williams (who was dealt to Los Angeles for Patrick O'Sullivan, who was dealt to Edmonton for Cole) out of the lineup with so many injuries, we felt we needed help right now. We needed a spark.

"Adding a player who knows his teammates here, it was a big advantage for us and him. It was like adding depth to our team, like a domino theory of strengthening our roster with the addition of just one player."

Adding a spark. Inserting a speed element into the Canes attack.

Said Staal, "It's a speed game with him and kind of opens up the ice. ... He brings that powerful stride where he can catch a defender and go wide and take it to the net.

"That speed element really backs off teams. We've brought that speed to the game, and that fire ... and it's helped create a lot of offense and helped our team win some important games."

"You could feel the boost we got from ‘Colesy’ making his return and how much we all fed off the atmosphere at RBC Centre in the fist game on," praised goaltender Cam Ward. "The building was rockin' again. Like in 2006."

In that season, the Hurricanes had the best record in the NHL and they went on to win the Stanley Cup. Ward, Cole, Staal, captain Rod Brind'Amour, Matt Cullen, Frantisek Kaberle, Chad LaRose, Niclas Wallin and Ray Whitney are still around from that Cup run.

The magic from 2006? It went poof as the Hurricanes missed the playoffs the last two seasons. Now it feels like it's back.

"I raised a family here, I was involved in a lot of different community affairs -- things that help you grow as a person and a player," Cole said, memories flowing. "To come into the League and sit on the bench with Ron Francis was a pretty amazing thing."

After being selected in the third round in the 1998 Entry Draft while he was playing at Clarkson University, Cole made an immediate impact on the Hurricanes as a rookie in the 2001-02 season.

Grit. Determination. Heart and soul.

Oh, yeah, also a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and 6 goals and 3 assists in 23 games before Detroit ended Carolina's fairy tale hopes of winning that Cup.

Though Cole played in only two playoff games in the Hurricanes' Cup run in 2006, he had a career-high 30 goals in just 60 games before being sidelined by a career-threatening neck injury. He was crushed head-first into the boards by Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik -- the check produced a compound fracture of Cole's C5 vertebra, a hit from behind that doctors said came within fractions of an inch of paralyzing him.

During that '06 playoff run, Cole was always there. He was always a part of the team nonetheless. And now he's back where he and his family were the most comfortable.

For me, it's a great win for our hockey team and for a lot of people back in Columbus, especially our fans in particular … people who have been devoted to this organization, it's big.

— Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards on their win vs. the Penguins in Game 2, the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup Playoff victory