It was a surprise, but it was no party.
In the best-kept secret of the playoffs, the Carolina Hurricanes sprung Erik Cole on the Edmonton Oilers last night, hoping the unexpected return of their injured winger would be all the inspiration they needed to win Game 6. It wasn't.
Cole, who's been out since March 4 with a broken neck and was supposed to be gone for the rest of the playoffs, didn't provide much of a spark at all in the 4-0 loss.
"We didn't have it in mind that I was going to be any kind of saviour,'' said Cole, who logged 18:31 of ice time and two of Carolina's 16 shots on goal. "It was more like, if there's an injury and a spot in the lineup, let's see where we're at.''
The 27-year-old, who hadn't played since Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik shoved him into the boards head first, originally wanted to return for Game 5 of the Conference final. But doctors told him he wasn't ready.
Three weeks later, he's in the lineup. Asked if he's taking a risk by coming back this soon, he said it was no more than the risk he'd be taking if he waited till next season.
"Any more healing that goes on is going to be minimal to where we're at now,'' he said. "The risk is going to be with me for the rest of my life, but I felt strong over the last several weeks on the ice and the coaching staff felt that as long as I felt I could get it done and we talked it over with all the doctors, that we could do this.''
There was a rumour earlier in the series that Cole was angling towards a return against Edmonton, but head coach Peter Laviolette vehemently denied it. When Doug Weight went down with the shoulder injury, however, it set the wheels in motion.
Before anyone could even entertain the thought, Cole needed a CT scan to determine if the neck was sufficiently healed - but this being Canada, there was no chance to get one on short notice. So he ended up flying to Denver.
"I was taken care of very well there,'' he said, adding a face-to-face meeting with his regular doctor - who was flown in to Edmonton for a breakfast meeting yesterday - provided the final green light.
"After lunch it was still in my court. Even after warm-ups, it was whether or not I felt comfortable and I felt well enough to go out and try to contribute.''
He took a big hit from Ethan Moreau early in the first period and got right back up, and sparked a few offensive chances in the debut.
"It was my first game in three and a half months,'' he said. "But I thought I handled it pretty well for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.''