Manny Malhotra stepped confidently onto the ice while raucous chants of his name filled the arena.
The Vancouver Canucks’ inspirational center is back from an eye injury that threatened his career. Now if he can conquer his butterflies, he might help Vancouver raise the Stanley Cup next week.
Malhotra returned to the Canucks lineup for Game 2 of the finals on Saturday night, winning faceoffs and playing strong defense during Vancouver’s 3-2 overtime victory.
”I was excited I was going to have the chance to play, but probably the most nervous I’ve been in my entire career,” he said.
Malhotra hadn’t played since March 16, when a deflected puck hit him in the face, opening a wound that left a trail of blood on the ice. He needed two operations on his left eye, and the Canucks declared his season over.
Wearing a full-face shield, Malhotra was the last player on the ice for warmups for Game 2, and he got the biggest cheer from the crowd as it made its way into the building. He was greeted by more cheers and chants of ”Manny, Manny” when he made his finals debut by beating Boston’s Chris Kelly on a faceoff 1:48 into the first period.
”I guess I really didn’t settle down ’til after my first shift,” Malhotra said. ”It was obviously a great feeling, the ovation I got for my first shift. I think it kind of put a little bit more nerves on me, wanting to do something out there, execute. Once I got out there, I felt a little bit better, started to skate.”
Malhotra got 7:26 of ice time – a bit above normal for the players who have been centering the Canucks’ fourth line lately. He was as good as promised on faceoffs, winning 86 percent of his draws.
A few minutes into the first period, Rogers Arena showed a brief video tribute to the center. The camera cut to Malhotra when it ended – but he wasn’t watching. He was talking to linemate Jeff Tambellini, working on strategy for the next shift.
”We were all excited for Manny,” Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo said. ”I mean, he’s a great leader and a great teammate, great friend. Obviously it was tough to see what happened a few months ago. I think as a group, we were just so excited for him that he’s able to come back and contribute.”
Signed as a free agent last summer to bolster the Canucks’ third line, Malhotra wasted no time establishing himself as a leader, running pre-training camp drills at informal skates despite being the newcomer on a tight-knit team loaded with returning veterans.
He was named an assistant captain on the eve of the regular season and established himself as the shutdown center Vancouver had been lacking. He was second in the NHL in faceoffs at 61.7 percent, and played a key role on what was the league’s No. 1 penalty-killing unit before he was hurt.
Malhotra stayed involved even while he was out, acting like an extra coach in the playoffs. He sat in on penalty-killing meetings and advised teammates on everything from faceoffs to shooting to handling the playoff pressure.
When he joined the team for an informal pre-practice skate May 12, assistant coach Rick Bowness downplayed any chance of a comeback this season, short of ”a complete miracle,” he said. But last week, Malhotra was cleared for contact and a return to practice, sparking talk he would start the Stanley Cup finals.
That speculation ended when he missed three straight practices starting Tuesday, leading to rumors he had suffered a setback. But he was back on the ice Friday and said his vision was good enough to play.
”Well enough,” Malhotra said when asked how well he can see out of the swollen eye. ”I’ve been cleared to play. I feel confident on the ice. That’s all that matters at this point.”
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said Malhotra won’t return to his old spot on the third line, but Vancouver’s fourth line played only a handful of shifts in Game 1, perhaps making a smooth transition for Malhotra more than 11 weeks after his previous game.
Vigneault also said Malhotra is likely to take key defensive draws while resuming his penalty-killing role.
”Being good in the circle is going to be a big part of what I do,” Malhotra said. ”It’s always tough to say how your legs are going to be responding in a game. Early on, I think the things we’re going to talk about if I do go is just simplicity, getting my feet moving, getting pucks in, making smart decisions with the puck and keeping things real basic right now.”