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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Capital Killer Erik Cole Trying to Resurrect His Career

Carolina Hurricanes left winger Erik Cole enters tonight's game against the Washington Capitals coming off a two-goal performance last night against the Boston Bruins.

That brings his season total to 8 goals in 27 games in yet another broken season for him in the midst of a broken season for his beloved Canes.  Cole has missed 41 games this season with two separate injuries, symptoms of his rough and tumble style of play, and another game with an illness. That Cole is even still playing is a miracle, but Caps fans have more colorful words to describe it. He's the type of player you hate to play against but love to have on your team.

Erik Cole, who stands 6' 2 and weighs over 200 pounds, always seems to have something up his sleeve for games against the Capitals.  He has played 36 games against the Capitals and has scored 19 goals and 32 points, his best totals against any team.  He has scored two of his six career hat tricks against the Caps, too, including when we thought we thought we were free of him during his gulag in Edmonton. To put this in perspective, Cole has played 6.85% of his 525 career games against the Caps and has scored 12.25% of his 155 goals in those games and 9.61% of his 333 points.

This season has been a struggle for the entire Carolina team, coming off an amazing playoff run only to tank this year. They couldn't buy a win, and something vital seemed to be missing.   It didn't help that Cole missed 10 games early in the season that saw the team go 2-5-3 and fall out of the race early. Cole had just gotten his game back in order in December, with a hat trick on December 5 against the Vancouver Canucks, but was injured again by December 9 and only just returned after the Olympic break.  He's heating up once again, and his history suggests he'll have a strong finish to the season.

Cole plays a hard, physical game and is extremely fast.  He has a willingness to take the body and crash the net, making him an ideal linemate for more skilled players.  His combination of size and skill make him a feared power-forward.  He has book smarts from his college days and hockey smarts, the scoring and the clutch ability and the lack of dumb penalties, 498 PIM in 525 GP, and a career +8. He plays all special teams and in all pressure situations. He'll stand up for a teammate, but doesn't fight often, he only has 7 fights in his NHL career including one against Toronto's Ian White this season, but he never seems to win them.

Cole was born on the shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego, New York, on November 6, 1978, and in many ways, he's never left. Oswego is 45 minutes northwest of Syracuse and less than 200 miles from where the United States would upset the Soviets at Lake Placid just over a year later. Erik splits his summers between North Carolina and New York and he also hosts a golf tournament in Oswego for his charitable foundation, the Erik Cole Dream Big Foundation, which benefits youth programs in New York and North Carolina.

The young Erik Cole was a multi-sport athlete, playing baseball, football, soccer, and golf. He also played ice hockey for his local high school for two seasons, the Oswego Buccaneers, and according to their website, he averaged 2.9 points per game and ranks 5th in all-time scoring. Erik's father, Dennis, accepted the award when he was inducted into the Oswego Athletic Hall of Fame this past December.

Erik left Oswego for Des Moines, Iowa, in 1996 for his senior year of high school, to play for the Buccaneers in the USHL.  He left like many kids his age do to get noticed by big universities and increase their quality of competition. He went from scoring 41 goals and 90 points in 40 high school games to 30 goals and 64 points in 48 USHL games.  He finished second in team scoring that season and was a teammate of Florida Panther and Iowa native Scott Clemmensen that year.

Erik only left New York for the one year, though, as he was back the next fall at Clarkson University, just over 100 miles from home (and Craig Laughlin's alma mater, where he's still the #13 all-time scorer), and spent three seasons there lighting up the ECAC.  He scored 52 goals and 103 points in 103 collegiate games between 1997-98 and 1999-00, helping Clarkson to a 65-35-7 record and an ECAC Championship under coach Mark Morris. Cole won ECAC Co-Rookie of the Year Honors, and predictably missed out on playing for the World Junior Team by hurting his ankle, but his season was good enough to be noticed by the Carolina Hurricanes and get drafted in the third round of the 1998 draft, 71st overall, a draft held only a few hours from home in Buffalo, New York.  Cole was a fixture on ECAC All-Star teams for the next two years and led the Golden Knights in goals and points while being named team MVP (and had a great hairdo).

While there he played with such teammates as former Capital captain Chris Clark, Vancouver defenseman Willie Mitchell, and San Jose defenseman Kent Huskins.

Cole left after his junior season to turn pro and finished the 1999-00 season with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL, scoring 4 goals and 7 points in 9 regular season and adding a goal and assist in 7 playoff games. Cole also spent the entire next season, 2000-01 in Cincinnati, scoring 23 goals and 43 points in 69 games as a professional rookie.  While there, he played with several future teammates on the Carolina Hurricanes, Corey Hirsch (who was called up to the Caps), Chris Chelios's cousin, and former Capital Stefan Ustorfwho Cole played with again during the NHL lockout.  

Erik Cole's rookie season in the NHL came in 2001-02 with the Carolina Hurricanes, a team that had made the playoffs the year before and had lost to eventual Stanley Cup Finalist New Jersey in 6 games.  Cole hit the NHL like a hammer, assisting on a goal 28 seconds into his NHL debut.  He scored 16 goals, 24 assists, and 40 points and laid 257 hits in 81 games that season and finished 4th among NHL rookies in points, 2nd in assists, and led all rookies in hits.  

When Carolina won the Southeast Division they secured home-ice for their first round rematch against the Devils.  This year they had their answer for  Scott Stevens, the Hall-of Fame defenseman who had laid out Carolina captain Ron Francis with a devastating open-ice hit in Game 3 of the first round series in 2001.  Erik Cole took the body on Stevens all series long, neutralizing his physical advantage.  Cole thrived on the big stage, scoring the game winning goal in his first NHL playoff game and scored again in his second against Martin Brodeur. He scored 4 goals and 7 points against Jose Theodore's Montreal Canadiens in the second round, including setting a franchise record with two goals in 3:08 in the deciding Game 6. The Canes fell in 5 games to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final, backstopped by current Capitals Goalie Coach Arturs Irbe, and led all rookies in playoff goals and points with 6 and 9 in 23 playoff games.

Then the injuries began.  Cole's 2002-03 season was shortened to 53 games, including the last 19 because of a broken left fibula, and Cole was limited to 27 points.  He returned to health in 2003-04 and scored 42 points in 80 games, but Carolina hadn't made the playoffs since 2002.  Cole turned to Europe during the NHL lockout where he played for the Berlin Eisbaren in the German Elite League on a team with the aforementioned Ustorf and Capitals goalie  Olie Kolzig. Cole won Playoff MVP honors as Berlin captured the League Title.  Cole was also asked to join Team USA for the World Championships and scored 6 points in 7 games.

Cole returned to the NHL in 2005 a much more confident player, especially after his selection to join Team USA for the Olympics.  Even a disappointing showing couldn't dampen his high spirits from representing his country, and he posted career high numbers with 30 goals and 59 points in 60 games before the unthinkable happened.  In a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Cole was checked hard into the board from behind by defenseman  Brooks Orpik. The hit broke his neck, compressing vertebrae in his neck, and Cole missed 45 games, including the last 22 of the regular season. In a season in which Cole had finally come into his own, he had lost his best opportunity to prove he was one of the elite scorers in the NHL, not just another very good player.  He had never topped 18 goals before, so a 30 goal season was a big deal, but he was on pace for 41 goals and 80 points.

When Carolina made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final, Cole was forced to watch.  He willed himself back into lineup for Games 6 and 7 of the Final, and while he didn't score, he was an inspiration to his teammates, and Cole was bale to lift the Cup just three months after he was hit and didn't even know if he'd be able to play again.  Over the next two seasons in Carolina, Cole missed a total of 20 games and Cole put up 29-goals and 61 points and 22 goals and 51 points, even though Carolina missed the playoffs. Cole played again for Team USA in the 2007 World Championships.  Hurricanes management decided to go in another direction and traded Cole to Edmonton on July 1, 2008.  Cole played 3/4 of the season in Edmonton before Carolina realized their mistake:  Eric Staal had been struggling all season without his net-crashing, speedy linemate and Erik Cole could still fly, doing a lap around Rexall Place in Edmonton in 13.117 seconds during a skills competition, the fastest time ever recorded.  Cole returned to Carolina at the trade deadline in a three way deal and immediately clicked with Staal, putting up 15 points in 17 games leading up to the playoffs.

Once in the playoffs, Cole didn't score a goal, but he created time and space for his linemates as they went all the way to the Conference Final before bowing out to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  In game one of the Eastern Conference Final, Cole was the victim of a cheap-shot from Penguin winger Matt Cooke, a knee-on-knee hit that left Cole hobbled for the rest of the series.  Even so, Cole assisted on 3 goals in that four game series, and finished the playoffs with 5 assists in 18 games.

Cole's body of work suggests he should recover to have a nice showing next season if can stay healthy and if he stays on the line with Eric Staal.  At age 31, he isn't getting any younger, and if major injuries keep cropping up, he'll find himself on the outside looking in.  He'll need to have a great season next year, especially with Carolina's youth movement.  He has one more year on his contract at $2.9 million, and he will need to justify a big-time contract on the free agent market or with Carolina.
Other Notes on Tonight's Game vs Carolina:
Boyd Gordon is hurt again, his back is acting up again after taking a fall in the last game.  With Coach Bruce Boudreau's comment about sleeping on different beds, it makes you wonder if Gordo will only be able to play at home in the playoffs. This will make the playing-time competition less fierce, though, but also less complicated.

-Look for Scott Walker to be back in the lineup tonight against his old team. That probably means Quintin Laing is out.

-It looks like Semyon Varlamov will be back between the pipes tonight.  Nothing like a softball against one of the worst teams in the league to get the confidence back up, right?  Right?

-Speaking of getting the confidence back up, it looks like rookie goalie
Justin Peters is starting for Carolina.  

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