Manny Legace sat in the deserted weight room as his teammates scurried to pack their things for a late night trip to Buffalo, staring past his still-padded legs and down at the floor, looking utterly shell shocked.

After Friday’s 6-4 loss to the Thrashers, surely the 14,463 fans in attendance can relate, if not sympathize.

Freshly home after successfully managing to escape into December without a win on the road, the ‘Canes dropped another humiliating game to the Atlanta Thrashers after sitting pretty on a 4-1 lead in the third period. Allowing a three-goal comeback in only a 2:39-minute span sunk the ‘Canes after they put together a solid two periods and an impressive lead.

Legace faced the team that cut him in training camp for the first time and had a good showing…for the first 46 minutes, that is. It seemed improbable that the ‘Canes could have such a dramatic meltdown, even without Legace at the top of his game. They were quick, executed well and had all the momentum going into the latter stages of the game.

But after handing Atlanta a five-goal third period, that was the reality. A cold start has now given way to a frigid middle stanza, and this loss could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It goes without saying that if the ‘Canes continue to play like this, they will not be able to pick themselves up out of the Eastern Conference basement.

According to Matt Cullen, this is as bad as it gets.

‘I can’t think of anything tougher than this one,” Cullen said.

It didn’t start that way, though. Cole deflected a shot past Ondrej Pavelec to get things rolling midway through the first period. Eric Staal was awarded the secondary, giving him assists in consecutive since his activation from injured reserve.

Speaking of his injury, which sidelined the Carolina star for three weeks, the difference between October Staal and late-November Staal are night and day. He looks quicker, more confident and less hesitant to get knocked around in front of the net. Sitting out for a few clearly does the body good.

However, this game was not the Story of Staal. Jussi Jokinen almost connected three times during a cross-checking power play to Chris Thorburn and Ruutu almost added to the lead after it expired, but the referee immediately waived the goal off, saying he kicked it into the net.

Stephane Yelle beat his man back to touch up an icing right at the start of the second period. He wrapped the puck around while an absent Pavelec scrambled to get back to make the lead 2-0.

After two point-blank solo chances from Cole and Cullen, the ‘Canes left rookie Evander Kane alone in front of Legace. Kane expertly tipped a pass past Legace for his eighth of the season.

Right after a penalty to Rod Brind’Amour expired, Cole zoomed in and made a pass through traffic to Sergei Samsonov look ridiculously easy. Samsonov redirected it past Pavelec for his third of the season and Cole’s 300th franchise assist.

A sliding Legace denied Thrashers’ Rich Peverley right in front of the net to keep the lead.

Carolina got its second shortie of the season late in the second period. Cullen, the most frequent subject of trade rumors in recent weeks, finally got the goal that eluded him through the first period and a half and his sixth point in seven games when Tom K-Something and he went off on a shorthanded two-on-one. Kostopoulos put the puck right on Cullen’s stick and he hit a wide-open net. Kostopoulos scored the only other shorthanded goal of the season Oct. 9 against Florida.

But of course, Carolina couldn’t make it that easy. Joni Pitkanen, who was +2 with two hits and a blocked shot, continued his hokey-pokey roster routine and exited the game with an “upper body injury” after some friendly fire in the first period. Coach Paul Maurice said a run-in with Brandon Sutter caused the injury.

Pitkanen apparently took the ‘Canes’ work ethic with him on his way back for medical treatment. According to Kostopoulos, the ‘Canes mentally checked out at the start of the third.

‘We kind of thought that we had it and already had the two points on the board,” K-Something said.

It took both teams a while to break through in the third period, but Atlanta finally exploded for two goals in 48 seconds. Vyacheslav (bless you!) Kozlov had a wide open net after Legace went swan diving out of it to stop another shot. Just as the ‘Canes are wont to do, they allowed the Thrashers to walk in alone and hand off an easy pass to captain Ilya Kovalchuk.

‘We definitely thought we had the game in control and again, we just gave them life when we couldn’t afford it and they jumped on it,” Cullen said.

Maurice had another way of looking at it.

‘They decided the back half of it wasn’t too important to them in the third,” Mo said.

‘Mazine the Skating Queen,” as he’s known to bitter Buffaltonians, or ‘That guy they didn’t cut in training camp,” as he’s known to Manny Legace – Maxim Afinogenov – completed the comeback just a few minutes after it started. The ‘Canes slowed down and allowed Atlanta to put on a passing clinic in front of Legace. The Thrashers seemed to have figured out the Carolina goaltender by that point and caught him out of position yet again.

The boobirds came out once Peverley pulled the Thrashers pulled ahead, 5-4, after a sliding ‘Cane did little to help the play and actually screened Ward on the play. Gleason, meanwhile, was standing next to Legace, slack-jawed.

Too unsettled to put any last-minute heroics together, the game slipped away for Carolina. Marty Reasoner added an empty-netter seconds after Maurice pulled Legace to make the score 6-4. The unusually large post-Thanksgiving crowd didn’t notice – most of it was already in the parking lot.

The players and coaches insist this season has been plagued by mental difficulties, and at this point it’s tempting to believe them. The core of this team doesn’t suck – we saw what it could do last season and during brief flashes of brilliance this season. But there is something very, very sick with this Carolina squad, and it’s almost too late to fix it.

Where are the dramatic changes Jim Rutherford alluded to a month ago? Either the market is truly frozen over or he was teetering on the idea of moves being truly necessary. But at this point, by the times moves start happening, it will be a late season firesale to playoff-bound teams.

Carolina has a long plane ride ahead of it to Buffalo, where the Sabres will host a 7 p.m. Saturday match-up.

‘Some losses you leave and you forget – this one we’re going to have to go through tomorrow morning and go through it,” Mo said. ‘You can’t just move on when you’re in our situation.”