RALEIGH — On a weekend when everyone turned back their clocks an hour, Erik Cole of the Carolina Hurricanes appeared to turn it back a few years.
Cole's 32nd birthday was Saturday. He celebrated it by playing like a guy who was 25 opposite a winger who's 18 against the Florida Panthers at the RBC Center.
Cole hustled. He banged. The power forward was active defensively and blocked a couple of shots in the Canes' 3-2 victory.
Early in the third period, Cole had a vintage move. He carried the puck down the right wing, easily wheeled around defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, circled the net and made a sharp centering pass to Jeff Skinner.
"Kind of found my stick," as Skinner put it.
Skinner, who had defenseman Mike Weaver on his hip in front of goalie Scott Clemmensen, scored to give the Canes a 2-0 lead.
"He's probably the quiet player of our group who hasn't been talked about much," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said of Cole. "But he has had an outstanding start to his season."
In the Canes' 7-7-0 start, Cole is plus-8 in the plus/minus rating and ranked among the NHL's top 10 in that category after Saturday's games. While Cole more or less shrugs that off, he has been solid. He has three goals and five assists, picking up his third goal Friday against the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla.
"He muscled the puck to the middle on two guys and scored," Maurice said. "He's, for me, skating as well as I've seen him skate, and powerful."
And having some fun, especially on the line with Tuomo Ruutu at center and the 18-year-old, Skinner, on the left wing. Maurice moved Skinner to Eric Staal's line for the New York Islanders game Wednesday and started Friday's game in Florida with the same look, but shifted Skinner back to the Ruutu line late in the 7-4 loss to the Panthers.
Cole often is seen laughing it up with Skinner on the ice and on the bench, or giving the rookie a playful push like a big brother teasing a little brother.
"There are times on the ice I like to see him just relax and smile and make sure he's having fun out there," Cole said. "I think we're just trying to figure each other out. When you're playing on a line with somebody it's good to talk to the bench, in the locker room or away from the rink as much as you can just to continue to build the familiarity."
"The more communication you have in other situations will lead to better communication on the ice. The more we talk about situations, what he's thinking or what I'm thinking, the better off we're going to be in being able to find each other out there."
Is Skinner making him feel young? Cole smiled when the question was posed.
"He's pretty young, that's for sure, but he doesn't act like it," Cole said. "He's a quiet kid and doesn't say a heck of a lot, so you have to initiate other stuff with him.
"But when he does come up and say something, it's usually pretty funny. He usually gets a laugh out of me. He's been more than enjoyable, and I'm glad to have him."
Maurice likes to tinker with his lines, but moving Ruutu to center with Cole and Skinner on the wings has proved to be successful and productive. It meshed easily, quickly, and after the Canes' victory Saturday could be back together for a while.
"It's basically the same kind of situation, with the three of us talking on the bench about where we're going to be and what we want done with the puck in certain situations," Cole said of the line. "We want to have that chemistry and make it a lot more fluid out there, but at the same time we're three guys that are pretty good in the offensive zone, down low. 'Skins' isn't afraid, as a little guy, to go into the traffic areas and get his mitts dirty, and he competes at a real high level.
"So when you add the three components of each of the three, it makes for a pretty effective line on nights - when we're going."
Cole, the team's NHL Players Association representative, missed 42 games last season with injuries, beginning with a broken leg in the second game. He's in the final year of a two-year contract but his goal this season is a simple one: stay healthy, stay in the lineup and keep contributing.
And try to keep turning back the clock.
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