FOR WINGER Erik Cole's return to the Hurricanes on March 6, hundreds of Carolina fans dug out their number 26 jerseys and headed to the RBC Center to welcome him home. Cole, traded to Edmonton last July after playing his first six NHL seasons in Raleigh, was a fan favorite for his on-ice persistence. He had also become something of a folk hero after the 2006 playoffs, during which he returned from a broken neck suffered 12 weeks earlier to play the last two games of the Stanley Cup finals and draw the holding penalty that led to the Cup-clinching power-play goal. When the Oilers played in Carolina in November, Cole got a standing ovation.
He got another one when he scored on a rebound 18 minutes into his first game back as a Hurricane, jump-starting a win over Calgary. "There's an entertainment factor with Erik's game," says Carolina coach Paul Maurice. "That speed, that tenacity. Fans appreciate it."
Carolina drew 18,108 for that game against the Flames, about 2,000 above its average attendance, yet Cole's impact on the bottom line hasn't been as conspicuous as on the Hurricanes' top line, where he's been reunited with center Eric Staal. Cole's quick strides on the rush draw defenders away from the All-Star Staal, and in the pair's six games together through Sunday, Staal had 13 points. (That after just 50 points in 65 games before the trade.) "He knows me, and we know each other's game," says Staal. "Erik's such a great skater. Other teams really have to respect his speed, and that gives me that extra half-second or second to make a play."
The presence of Cole, who had eight points of his own while helping Carolina to go 3-1-2 and jump to seventh place in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race, has also had a trickle-down effect. Sergei Samsonov, whom Cole replaced on Staal's right wing, is now free of opponents' top defenses and blossoming on the third line (six points in the six games) alongside captain Rod Brind'Amour, who after a 29-game goalless streak had scored four times since Samsonov joined him. For all the player moves made at the March 4 NHL trade deadline—22 in all—this could well be the one that most elevates a team. To get Cole, who'll be a free agent at season's end, the Hurricanes surrendered only injured winger Justin Williams in a three-team deal with the Oilers and the Kings.
After a difficult stint in Edmonton, where he was juggled among various linemates, flipped from left wing to right wing and had just 27 points in 63 games—"It was a tougher transition than I had imagined it would be," Cole says—Cole, 30, has settled back into his comfort zone, on and off the ice. He's even living in his old house in Raleigh, with his wife, Emily, and their two children. He's also gone back to his seat on the team plane, next to defenseman Niclas Wallin. "He's part of our team," Maurice says. "For a lot of the guys now, it feels like he never left."
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MITCHELL LAYTON/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (COLE)
HIGH IMPACT With Cole (left) on his line, Staal (inset) put up 13 points in six games.
LOU CAPOZZOLA (STAAL)
[See caption above]