Carolina looks to rebound after 3-2 loss to Sabres

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- It was a regular practice on an off day during the playoffs, and not a very strenuous one at that. Still, the ice time was pretty special to Erik Cole.

He joined the Carolina Hurricanes' full-squad workout on Sunday for the first time in 2 1/2 months, when a compression fracture in a vertebra in his neck ended what already was a career regular season.

Will he be back in the postseason? Cole won't be sure until he has a CT scan in the upcoming week to check his progress.

"I am hopeful that the next CT scan looks good and that both fractures are fully healed or close to being fully healed," he said Sunday. "If they are, we'll sit down with the doctors and talk about what the options are, what the repercussions are, sit down with my wife and figure it out."

The Hurricanes certainly could use their left wing, and not only because they lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final to Buffalo on Saturday. With him in the lineup and contributing 60 points in 60 games, they were 42-14-4.

After he got injured March 4 in Pittsburgh, Carolina finished 10-8-4 in the final 22 games.

"I think shortly after that we became a little bit more inconsistent with our play," coach Peter Laviolette said. "I am not sure if that was due to complacency on some nights or the fact that one of our top players is now missing from the lineup."

The devastating injury came when Cole was driven headfirst into the boards by Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik. A few weeks later, Orpik tried to reach Cole through Mark Recchi, a former teammate with the Penguins who was traded to Carolina.

It came at a particularly bad time for Cole. He recently had traded in a simple neck collar for a large, cumbersome brace in hopes of avoiding surgery, and he really wasn't in the mood for an apology.

"After the week that I had, and after the three weeks I had, for Reccs to come up to me and he just asked if he could pass along my number to Brooks and I told him no," Cole said. "I told him not to bother."

On Sunday, Cole was welcomed back to practice with open arms, even if he might not be able to rejoin the team until next season. He donned a blue sweater to signify his status as an injured skater, and as he warmed up, several teammates took time to tap the ice with their sticks, the hockey equivalent of a standing ovation.

At the end of the 60-minute session, alternate captain Kevyn Adams gave up his normal spot in the center of the faceoff circle during stretching, motioning at Cole to replace him.
 

 
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"Just a good lift for the guys to see him able to go out and really enjoy being out there with the guys," Adams said. "It's good to have him back."

Yet the Hurricanes have more pressing matters, namely finding a way to end Buffalo's five-game road winning streak in the playoffs. The Sabres held on for a 3-2 victory in the opener mostly on the strength of goals from defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Jay McKee.

Those blue-line players have combined for four goals in the postseason after totaling only 11 during the season, and they did it with fellow defenseman Teppo Numminen out for the final two periods.

There was some question about Numminen's exact injury, with coach Lindy Ruff first calling it a "lower-body" ailment before adding "mid to lower." Either way, his status for Game 2 on Monday night was questionable.

Doug Janik, who didn't play at all this season for Buffalo, would be the replacement. He had five goals and 19 assists in 71 games with Rochester in the AHL.

"We certainly hope Teppo is going to be OK, but if not, all season long, we've had guys step up and take over when we've had injuries," McKee said. "We've got guys that are here and ready to take the place of Teppo if he's not in."

Ruff isn't too worried about being short-handed.

"I think our top four relish that extra ice time," he said. "Defensemen, if you are playing a decent game and there's a lot of offensive zone time, you can easily play four defensemen and roll them and they enjoy playing that ice."

Cole would like to get back, too. For now, he can participate in non-contact drills and other activity. Simply having him back around was enough to bring a smile to everyone's face, including his.

"It's better for him than it is us," Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour said. "Until we see his name in the lineup, and then it'll be all about us. Right now, it's all about him, and it's good to see for his morale. Now, he knows the tough road is behind him."

Buffalo Sabres' Daniel Briere, left, celebrates his goal with teammates Jason Pominville (29) and Taylor Pyatt in the first period against the Carolina Hurricanes during the opening game of the NHL hockey Eastern Conference finals Saturday, May 20, 2006, in Raleigh, N.C. Buffalo won 3-2. Carolina Hurricanes' Bret Hedican (6) watches from the background.  (AP Photo/ Karl DeBlaker)

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