Luke DeCock

Of all the playoff series in all the world, Brooks Orpik had to walk into this one

Canes gear up for Game 3 against Caps

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour says his team needs to get back to playing its game to win Game 3 of their playoff series against the Washington Capitals. The Caps lead 2-0 in the series, which shifts to Raleigh and PNC Arena on Monday.
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Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour says his team needs to get back to playing its game to win Game 3 of their playoff series against the Washington Capitals. The Caps lead 2-0 in the series, which shifts to Raleigh and PNC Arena on Monday.

Erik Cole had turned off Game 2 and was on his way to a pre-prom party for his daughter Saturday night when the overtime game-winner was scored. He got out of the car, pulled out his phone to check the score and felt the name like a punch in the gut.

The Carolina Hurricanes finally get back in the postseason for the first time since Cole was still playing here, and of all the playoff series in all the towns in all the world, Brooks Orpik had to walk into this one.

“The thought that went through my head was there couldn’t have been a worse guy to score a goal against the Canes in the playoffs,” Cole said Sunday.

Orpik’s timing was exceptional, scoring 108 seconds into overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 4-3 win and 2-0 series lead over the Carolina Hurricanes, and while he would have been an unpopular figure at PNC Arena for Game 3 on Monday anyway, the goal certainly won’t dull that edge.

Thirteen years after Orpik, then playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, broke Cole’s neck with a check from behind into the boards, resentment still lingers. Not merely with Cole, whose career was cut prematurely short, but Hurricanes fans who feared their team’s chances at the Stanley Cup had been severely damaged when Cole – in the middle of what would end up being the best season of his career – was injured.

Orpik got a three-game suspension. Cole got a lifetime of cervical problems and no apology.

Fate would intervene with the trade-deadline arrival of Mark Recchi from those same Penguins to fill the gap, before Cole’s unlikely return in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals after enough CT scans to make him glow in the dark, but what happened on that March night in Pittsburgh’s old Civic Arena has never been forgotten.

And there is Orpik, all these years later, not only on the ice against the Hurricanes in the playoffs, but dealing them a loss in a game that they twice came from behind to tie the score.

“No, I didn’t even think about that,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “That’s a tough one. A lot of things went wrong on that play.”

AP_060304038379.jpg
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brooks Orpik (44) checks Carolina Hurricanes’ Erik Cole into the boards on Saturday, March 4, 2006. Orpik was penalized for boarding and given a game misconduct. Cole missed the rest of the regular season with a compression fracture in a vertebra in his neck caused by the hit. Associated Press

Too true: Anyone could have scored from that position, Teuvo Teravainen scrambling at the end of a long shift having given up his stick to Brett Pesce, Petr Mrazek partially obstructed by Pesce who was worried about Evgeny Kuznetsov behind the net, Orpik hopping off the bench and jumping straight into the play to one-time Kuznetsov’s pass over Mrazek’s left shoulder.

Anyone could have scored. And from the Hurricanes’ perspective, and Cole’s in particular, anyone would have been better than Orpik, who is as beloved in the Capitals’ dressing room as he is hated here.

All these years later, Cole – who now serves as a Hurricanes ambassador – still can’t shake Orpik. As he tells it, he took his son to a hockey tournament in Buffalo this winter, and while Cole was at dinner with his parents, some of the other hockey dads and players wound up in an elevator with a man who identified himself as Orpik’s father. The man noted he wasn’t very popular in North Carolina because his son broke Cole’s neck – with Cole’s son in the elevator.

Cole heard about that unpleasant moment second-hand, much like Orpik’s goal Saturday, but he remains frustrated that Orpik is still playing at age 38 while Cole spent most of his career fighting through chronic neck problems and, objectively speaking, was never the same dominant power winger he was in the fall of 2005, tormenting defensemen with his electric bull rushes down the right wing.

“I wouldn’t call it bad blood,” Cole said. “I have zero respect for the guy. The fact that he’s still playing doesn’t help that at all. The fact I had to shut it down because of the degeneration in my neck based off the fracture. I just don’t care for him. At all.”

Cole, now four years removed from the NHL, will be in attendance at PNC on Monday. He’ll watch as two of his teammates on the ice that night in March 2006, then-captain-now-coach Brind’Amour and current Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, will go up against Orpik and the Capitals with an eye to getting back in the series, not settling ancient scores.

But Orpik, like Scott Stevens once was, has been reflexively harassed at PNC for more than a decade, and that wouldn’t have changed Monday whether he scored Saturday or not. Sometimes the past runs deeper than the present.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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