Even though Manny Malhotra still can’t play for the Canucks, his surprise return to the ice Thursday provided a pick-me-up to his Vancouver teammates.
Out with a career-threatening eye injury since being hit by a deflected puck on March 16, Malhotra skated with the team for the first time since being hurt as the Canucks began to prepare for the Western Conference finals.
Associate coach Rick Bowness said there was ”no chance” Malhotra, who already had at least two surgeries on his injured left eye, was coming back during these playoffs. Still, the Canucks were happy to see him.
”It was a thrill for all of us to see him on the ice,” Bowness said. ”Getting back in the room and getting ready for practice, there’s always excitement back in the air — we’re getting back at, we’re getting ready for the next round — but when Manny walks in and goes on the ice with them … it just gave everyone an extra boost, and the guys really enjoyed having him on the ice with them.”
Wearing a Canucks-colored tracksuit and full-face shield on his helmet, Malhotra skated around before practice. He even joined the team for warmup drills and took part in few line rushes before returning to the bench after 15 minutes.
”Just a couple shifts, but it was nice to see him out,” goalie Roberto Luongo said. ”To be on the ice with the boys like that, it was really special.”
It’s not like Malhotra hasn’t been around during the playoffs.
Named an assistant captain in the first season of a three-year, $7.5 million deal he signed as a free agent, the 12-year NHL veteran has become an extra coach during the playoffs.
He’s in penalty kill meetings for a unit he helped lead the league in the regular season, and dishes advice on everything from shooting to faceoffs, which he was second in the NHL at 61.7 percent.
Bowness compared it to seeing Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby, out with a concussion, wearing a headset while watching the Penguins play in the playoffs.
”He’s helping out a lot,” added forward Daniel Sedin. ”Everyone respects his opinion and he’s been around this league for a long time, so guys are going to listen when he talks. He’s being a good, positive impact on a lot of guys.”
Malhotra’s advice could become more meaningful in the Western Conference finals — Vancouver’s first trip this deep into the playoffs since 1994 — especially if San Jose advances to play the Canucks here on Sunday. Malhotra played last season for the Sharks.
”He gives tips on what’s going on in the game,” defenseman Sami Salo said. ”He sees the game from upstairs and the TV, so he has little inside scoops.”
Malhotra, 30, still hasn’t addressed the media other than releasing an April 6 statement thanking the surgeons, organization and fans for their support. His teammates are thankful for his support in the postseason.
”He’s so positive every day even with what he’s gone through,” Salo said.
Salo knows better than most how hard that can be. He missed the first four and a half months of the season recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered last summer, yet another injury in a career filled with them.
”It is tough, especially when the team is in the playoffs right now,” Salo said. ”But he’s been really positive and supportive, and it’s been good to have him in the locker room. That shows you what kind of a great character he is.”
And why he was such a good candidate to be an assistant captain so soon.
”Maybe he should have an ‘A’ on his t-shirt right now,” Salo said.
Bowness said Malhotra won’t need the ‘A’ for his jersey anytime soon. The team announced Malhotra’s season was over just a few days after a hard pass glanced off a stick and struck him in the left eye, and that hasn’t changed.
”Unless there is a complete miracle, no chance,” Bowness said of a playoff return. ”He’s getting a little workout with the guys, it’s a big thrill for all of us to see him back on the ice, but nothing has changed.”
In terms of Malhotra’s impact off the ice, that’s a good thing.