RALEIGH, N.C. - Erik Cole has traded the bulky white neck brace for a blue no-contact practice jersey, proof that he's recovering from the broken bone that prematurely ended a career season.
He feels blessed that he's improving, but also feels the sting of sitting out while the Carolina Hurricanes prepare for the Stanley Cup finals.
"I'm just trying not to let my mind wander too much and think about all the what-ifs," Cole said Sunday. "But it's tough when you're sitting upstairs and the team takes the ice with the energy and the crowd. You definitely miss it."
Cole hasn't played since sustaining a compression fracture in a vertebra when he was driven headfirst into the boards by Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik in a 7-5 win March 4. Orpik was suspended three games for the hit.
Cole had scored two goals in the game, giving him a career-high 30 shortly after returning from playing for the U.S. Olympic team.
Cole hoped to return during the playoffs, and had resumed skating with the team during practice. But team doctor Doug Martini said about two weeks ago that Cole wasn't ready to play a contact sport.
"I feel good and I feel really well on the ice and everything, but it's not healed enough," Cole said. "And I know it."
But Cole sounds as if he's holding on to some glimmer of hope that he could return this postseason. He said a specialist has told him he might be cleared to return to contact 30 days after his last scan, which could be in time for a potential Game 7 against Edmonton.
For now, though, he's trying to support his teammates however he can.
"That should be the last thing on the guys' mind, how to include a guy that's not on the ice," he said. "It's about them going out there and playing as well as they can."
SPECIAL TEAMS: The series could be determined by the matchup between Carolina's power play and Edmonton's penalty kill.
Carolina has 22 goals in 85 attempts with the man advantage, good for a playoff-best 25.9-percent conversion rate. But Edmonton has allowed only 13 power-play goals in 114 attempts, killing off a playoff-best 88.6 percent.
That includes a 10-for-11 performance against Anaheim to clinch the Western Conference championship, and seven playoff games with a perfect killing percentage.
"We've won the special teams battles in every series we've been in, and to move on in the playoffs, you've got to win those battles," Oilers center Michael Peca said. "I think our penalty killing will give them fits. We work extremely hard."
STILL SEARCHING: Carolina defenseman Glen Wesley has played 1,473 regular-season and playoff games, but the 18-year veteran is still trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Only seven players in NHL history have played in more games without winning the Cup, and Wesley is making his fourth appearance in the finals. He faced the Oilers twice while with Boston in 1988 and 1990, and was on Carolina's 2002 team that lost to Detroit.
HOMEGROWN TALENT: Fernando Pisani grew up in Edmonton cheering on the Oilers, watching games on television with his father and feeling the excitement build in the city. Now the winger is doing his part to help the Oilers win the Stanley Cup for the sixth time.
Pisani is tied for the playoff lead with nine goals, the most for an Oilers player since Esa Tikkanen scored 12 in 1991.
"It's a special time of year and everybody tries to pick up their game a couple of notches," he said. "I've been pretty fortunate to get the goals going in."
WOLFPACK FAN?: Carolina's Eric Staal is starting to get used to the region's obsession with Atlantic Coast Conference basketball teams Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. He's even managed to make it to games at Duke and N.C. State, which shares the RBC Center with the Hurricanes.
So has the Thunder Bay, Ontario, native picked a favorite?
"I have an N.C. State sweatshirt, but it wasn't really because I liked them best," he said. "They do play out of our arena, so that counts for something."
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