In March, Erik Cole may have wondered if he would play hockey again. On Saturday, he finally will face the player who nearly ended his career.
Cole will try to lead the Carolina Hurricanes to their fifth win in seven games when they meet Brooks Orpik and the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins at the RBC Center on Saturday.
Cole had a breakout season in 2005-06 with Carolina, setting career highs with 30 goals and 59 points in 60 games. On March 4, after scoring two goals in his second consecutive game, Cole suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck when Orpik rammed him into the boards.
The injury was expected to keep Cole out until training camp, but the left wing returned to play Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, helping Carolina to its first championship.
"It's never going to heal fully," Cole said in June before the Cup-clinching win over Edmonton. "I'm always going to be at a slighter risk. I am going to be at this risk for my entire life."
Meanwhile, the NHL suspended Orpik for three games.
Carolina defeated Pittsburgh 5-1 on Oct. 14. Cole had one shot on goal and was plus-1, but Orpik didn't dress for the contest.
If there were any lingering questions about Cole's health, he may finally have put them to rest Thursday when he recorded a hat trick in the Hurricanes' 5-0 win over Washington - his first multigoal game since the injury.
"I felt like I was just racing up and down the ice (in the first period,)" Cole said. "As the game went on, I kind of slowed down a bit and tried to make more plays rather than sprint up the ice. Pucks were going in the net."
Cole has four goals and three assists in his last three games. Carolina has won two of those three, with the loss coming in a shootout Tuesday against New Jersey.
Cam Ward, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, made 20 saves in the win over Washington for his first regular-season shutout.
Ward is 3-1-0 with a 2.95 goals-against average in four career starts against the Penguins.
Pittsburgh (7-5-2), playing its third game in four nights, will try to halt a four-game slide. Rookie star Evgeni Malkin and Michel Ouellet each had a goal and an assist in a 6-3 loss to Ottawa on Friday.
The Penguins, who erased a pair of one-goal deficits, were outshot 44-17 in the game and have been outshot 149-81 during the skid.
"Nobody showed up," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "It was a big game for us, the crowd was unreal, sold out. How could you not show up? I hope it's not their character. ... We gave away too many shots, too many scoring chances."
Marc-Andre Fleury, who gave up all six goals, is 0-2-1 with a 4.30 GAA in his last three starts. He's also yet to win in his career versus Carolina, posting a loss, a tie and a 4.05 GAA in three games, including two starts.
Malkin, the NHL rookie of the month for October, ended a personal three-game goal-scoring drought with his team-high eighth goal. He did not play in the loss last month to Carolina as he continued to recover from a shoulder injury that occurred during preseason.