RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The Hurricanes have clawed their way into the playoff eight, but they’re not getting comfortable.

Erik Cole, seen here against the Bruins last season, beat Atlanta with an overtime goal for the second time this season.
  • File photo by Peggy Boone
  • Erik Cole, seen here against the Bruins last season, beat Atlanta with an overtime goal for the second time this season.

When Erik Cole flung a wrist shot past Ondrej Pavelec halfway through overtime on Saturday night, giving the Hurricanes a frantic 4-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina leapfrogged Atlanta in the conference standings. Although it was just game 53 in an 82-game schedule, the teams played as if it were an elimination game.

Eric Staal, Brandon Sutter and Jiri Tlusty also scored for the Canes, as Cam Ward saved 34 shots. Sutter’s line was dominant throughout the game, but Cole provided the decisive blow against the Thrashers for the second time this season. His overtime goal beat Atlanta 4-3 in their last visit to Raleigh on Jan. 9.

Niclas Bergfors, Brent Sopel and Zach Bogosian tallied for the Thrashers—Bogosian’s goal coming once Pavelec was pulled for the extra attacker in the final two minutes to send the game to extra time—and Bryan Little had two assists.

Sutter obviously ate his Wheaties on Saturday morning. His burst up ice on a shorthanded breakaway just five minutes into the game was the first of several on the night. When he beat Pavelec high blocker side with a wrist shot almost halfway through the third period, Sutter broke open a game dominated to that point by goaltending, shot-blocking, and checking. It took a great play to score in this game, and he summoned several of those.

Sutter’s goal, his twelfth of the year, was his fifth in the last seven games. If he and Tlusty can keep the third line scoring for the Canes, they will be hard team to play against.

Cole’s goal was one to remember, and not just because it ended an overtime game against a team Carolina will battle for a playoff spot all year. The hale winger carried the puck from behind his own goal, faked Freddy Modin out at center ice as he accelerated, and used Johnny Oduya as a screen to beat Pavelec high on the blocker side. It showed the sheer force of will fans have come to expect from Cole in big moments.

Even in the free agency era, players sometimes become inextricably linked with their franchise, as Erik Cole is with Carolina. Cole will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, and his name is being kicked around in the trade rumor mill that’s ramping up for the Feb. 28 deadline, but it’s hard to imagine him shipped to another club for a draft pick or prospect. Not because he doesn’t have the grit and skill to be a viable rental player for a playoff drive, but because his red and white mumber 26 seems tattooed on his skin rather than merely sewn on his jersey. Remember the season a few years ago when he played in Edmonton? Did that really happen?

There’s something unique and reckless about Cole’s signature barges down the wing, dipping his shoulder to angle straight at the goaltender or the near post, leaning into a defender to keep from falling over on his side, carrying the puck with one outstretched hand while bracing against the defender with the other. Those breathless rushes express the same indignance with which Canes fans have rooted for their team despite much of the rest of the hockey world’s dismissal. Raleigh’s impressive All-Star weekend seems to have broken through the northern ambivalence for the moment, and Cole lends a face to that.

Truth be told, Cole’s rushes rarely result in a goal. But there’s something daring and audacious about them that expresses the ethos of the franchise—determination. How many goalies have been rattled by Cole’s mad dash and given up a goal on an ensuing shift? How many penalties has Cole drawn when a defenseman becomes impatient and rides him down?

Seeing their team’s name above the playoff cutoff line on the locker room whiteboard for a change should give the Canes some extra jump as they begin a grueling five-game road trip, including a rematch with the Thrashers next Sunday night. Carolina will also visit conference-leading Philadelphia, division-leading Tampa Bay, and the rejuvenated New Jersey Devils twice.

The Canes will return to home ice on Feb. 18 to host the Flyers and to hang Rod Brind’Amour’s number 17 in the RBC Center rafters.