RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—In front of 18,100 ravenous fans who pulled their No. 26 jerseys out from the backs of their closets and cheered loudly every time his name was mentioned, Erik Cole made his return to Raleigh a victorious one indeed. Cole scored the back-breaking third goal and his teammate Ray Whitney – not to be outdone – scored a power play goal in each period to lead the ‘Canes to a 6-1 win over the Calgary Flames.
“Well I’ve been trying to tell people for years how good I was, but no one would listen,” Whitney joked. “I’ve must have caught Jim (Rutherford) at a soft moment, and he agreed.”
Calgary leads the Northwest Division and boasts both of the scariest top lines in the league, not to mention a young, bruising defenseman (Dion Phanuef) that will have you seeing pink elephants for days after his hits along the boards. But Phanuef and legendary ‘Cane-killer Olli Jokinen were kept silent and Jarome Iginla didn’t make his presence known until the third period, well after the game was neatly wrapped up.
The Flames defeated Philadelphia at home, 5-1, last night and sat starting goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who leads the league in wins. After a long stretch of Calgary possession, Olli Jokinen took an interference penalty at 14:25 in the first and Ray Whitney started the torrent of scoring. Whitney ditched his man and was waiting alone at the goalmouth when a Sergei Samsonov rebound bounced off Curtis McElhinney’s pads and right to him.
Samsonov received a fortuitous turnover at the blueline and scored top-shelf on a breakaway two minutes later. 42 seconds later, a rejuvenated Eric Staal shot through a pile-up of players in front of the net. The puck didn’t find the net, but Cole – on the ice and searching blindly for the puck – managed to slip the puck under McElhinney before he could close the gap between himself and the ice. Needless to say, the RBC Center fans were beside themselves.
“It was a battle in the front and Staalsy made a really good play to pounce on the first rebound,” Cole said. “I was in a bunch of skates looking for it, and I just took a wack at it. I was pretty fortunate.”
“We saw a little extra jump in Eric Staal’s game tonight with the addition (of Cole),” Whitney observed.
Scott Walker’s first since Jan. 15, a beautiful goal from an odd angle, was snuggled in between Whitney’s other two to make the score 6-0 in the third period. It was Whitney’s 300th career goal, and the endlessly-entertaining winger had some funny things to say about it. Usually players go down a laundry list of people to thank or claim that those milestones don’t matter in comparison to wins…but not Whitney.
“I wouldn’t have thought I’d make it to 300,” Whitney said. “I’ve been bought out twice, I’ve been waived twice. I’ve seen it all, that’s for sure. It’s something a lot of people thought wouldn’t happen, myself included. My dad will be proud, he didn’t think it would happen either.”
The Flames had nothing going and probably wanted to get out of that game as quickly as possible, but not without taking a piece of the ‘Canes with them. Dennis Seidenberg (“Whaaa?” No, that’s not a typo.) squared off in an awkward fight with Eric Nystrom and James Vandermeer took on tough guy Tim Conboy shortly thereafter. Vandermeer looked very strange during the later stages of the fight. While his arms were being pinned by his opponent, he looked like he was either trying to bite Conboy's neck or whisper something in his ear. In any case, Conboy all but knocked him over the head with a chair, Jerry Springer-style, chucking Vandermeer over his body and to the ice.
Iginla sneaked past several ‘Canes’ defensemen and ruined Cam Ward’s shutout bid with just less than four minutes remaining in the third. The ‘Canes’ netminder stopped 21 shots in the win.
“We played a 60 minutes hockey game tonight, and we were pretty disciplined,” Ward said. “Our guys stood up for one another and played a good all-around game.”
In a rare sighting, Rod Brind’Amour showed flashes of his former glory. The ‘Canes’ captain played well, totaling 19:07 of ice time and two and a half minutes on the penalty kill. And in perhaps the most telling statistic of all, he was a plus-1 on the night.
“I think that Roddy has played markedly better since he took that break and healed up a little bit,” coach Paul Maurice said. “I think having Samsonov and Patrick Eaves, two guys who can skate, on his wings have helped him a little bit. Never underestimate confidence, even with a veteran player.”
If this was what Jim Rutherford saw coming when he traded for Cole, the man is a genius. Unfortunately, the game means nothing in regards to the standings, as the Rangers and Penguins both won last night and the Sabres shut out Phoenix tonight. All that has come out of the last two days is a tightening of the standings, which means Carolina could burn through the playoff standings if it gets hot. A mere two points separate Buffalo and Carolina, which are tied for ninth place, and Montreal in fifth. The last sixteen-odd games are going to be interesting, to say the least.
The ‘Canes hurriedly packed their bags for tomorrow night’s match-up against the Tampa Bay Lighting, the final meeting between the two teams this season. They will return to the RBC Center on Monday to meet the New York Rangers and will play a total of four games next week.