FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Could there be a miracle comeback for Manny Malhotra in the Stanley Cup finals?

The former Hartford Wolf Pack and New York Rangers forward has been cleared by doctors to participate in Vancouver Canucks practice, including taking light contact.

Malhotra, the Rangers’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in 1998, was supposedly done for the season and faced the possible end of his career after sustaining a serious eye injury when hit by a deflected puck in a game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 16.

In fact, when Malhotra rejoined his teammates at practice for the first time on May 12, Canucks associate coach Rick Bowness said it would take “a complete miracle” for the center to return to the lineup this season.

But on Friday night, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said Malhotra had been cleared for the light contact.

“This is the natural progression without any sideways or backwards movement,” Gillis told reporters in Vancouver. “He’s progressed really well, but there’s a time frame in all of this where it isn’t about progressing, it’s just stability over time, and he’s gone through that now and everything looks really good.”

Malhotra, who had 11 goals and 30 assists in 72 games, was on the ice Friday morning wearing a full face shield that he has used since he returned to the ice. He won’t play in the finals that begin Wednesday night in Vancouver until he proves to himself and the coaching staff that he can play without being a liability to himself or the Canucks. But there is a legitimate chance he could see action against the Boston Bruins, who beat the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 Friday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals as Nathan Horton deflected in David Krejci’s pass with 7:33 left and Tim Thomas made 24 saves for his second shutout of the series. The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990 and will have a chance to win their first title since 1972 despite 37 saves by 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson, who lost an elimination game for the first time in eight tries. The Lightning had never lost a seventh game.

Meanwhile, Malhotra’s situation is a far cry from when the Canucks released a statement saying he was done for the season, though Gillis admitted much has changed in the last month.

“There was a number of reasons behind that, one is privacy issues, he had a severe injury and he’s done remarkably well (since),” Gillis said. “He’s come through major surgeries, and we were told all the downsides and he hasn’t experienced any of them. It’s remarkable, it’s almost stunning.”

Gillis also said there is no timetable for the return of Malhotra, who was not made available to the media.

“I think the doctors need to be comfortable where he is stable, his eye is stable and absolutely no further damage could ever occur by him playing hockey,” Gillis said.

But just the thought that Malhotra could play after what transpired six weeks ago is almost unthinkable, especially after two surgeries to save the vision in his eye and a third being contemplated.

Malhotra, who turned 31 on May 18, has been increasing his intensity in practice and has been told by doctors that the only way he can damage the eye any more is by taking direct contact by a puck or stick. So now he needs to engage in contact and one-on-one drills to determine if he can handle what is certain to another increase in physicality if he tries to play for the hockey’s most prized trophy.

While Malhotra reportedly has looked comfortable on draws (he was No. 2 in the NHL this season at 61.7 percent), his conditioning must be at the proper level and his mindset right to handle more physical contact. And coach Alain Vigneault and his staff must feel comfortable inserting someone into the lineup who hasn’t played since mid-March and won’t have full vision, despite the help of specially fitted contact lens as mandated by the NHL, at the most important time of the season.

Malhotra was named an assistant captain in the first year of a three-year, $7.5 million deal he signed as a free agent and became an extra coach during the playoffs as he sat in on penalty-kill meetings for a unit he helped lead the NHL in the regular season and offers advice on shooting and face-offs. He looked terrific as the camera caught him on the ice after the Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup finals when they beat the San Jose Sharks 3-2 in Game 5 on Tuesday night to win the Western Conference finals.

Malhotra’s return to the lineup would be even more inspirational as the Canucks play in the finals for the first time since 1994, when the Rangers ended a 54-year drought in seven games. Here’s hoping the medical miracle happens for Manny, one of the classiest guys in all of sports, but only if it doesn’t jeopardize the rest of his career – and life.

KLEINENDORST SURE ENJOYING HIS FIRST YEAR IN BINGHAMTON

Kurt Kleinendorst and brother Scot were the fourth- and fifth-round picks of the Rangers in 1980.

Kurt never played in the NHL, plying his trade exclusively in the minors, winning a championship with the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers in 1984 and meeting his future wife Deon while a member of the International Hockey League’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles.

Scot, meanwhile, played in 281 NHL games with the Rangers, Hartford Whalers and Washington Capitals and also spent time with the AHL’s Springfield Indians, Binghamton Whalers and Baltimore Skipjacks and CHL’s Tulsa Oilers.

But on Friday night, Scot began watching Kurt try to coach the Binghamton Senators to their first Calder Cup title, but the Houston Aeros won the opener of the best-of-seven finals 3-1 as former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Jed Ortmeyer scored the last two goals in a three-goal flurry in the opening 6:09 of the third period that wiped out a 1-0 deficit. The Senators were playing for the first time in nine days since winning the Eastern Conference finals with a four-game sweep of the Charlotte Checkers without ever trailing.

“You don’t realize how long the layoff is until you go through it,” Senators assistant coach Steve Stirling, whose previous jobs included head coach of the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers and NHL’s New York Islanders, told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin on the eve of the championship series. “The guys are anxious for that first puck drop, to get those competitive juices flowing again. We’re good to go and ready as we’ll ever be.”

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers center Corey Locke, the AHL’s MVP and leading scorer (86 points) this season, is seeking a second Calder Cup title after winning with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007. Locke faced former Rangers and Wolf Pack teammate Jed Ortmeyer and Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore, a South Windsor native whose goal with 1:13 left gave Houston a 4-3 victory over Hamilton in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday night.

“This is the ultimate goal, to play in the finals,” Locke said. “We have four solid lines that are rolling right now. Our (defensive) corps has been solid back there. They’re moving the puck, and they’re making it easy for (rookie goalie) Robin (Lehner) to see pucks. And, obviously, we’re getting great goaltending, even with Barry (Brust) coming in and shutting the door in Game 1 in Charlotte.

“If you’re going to win a championship, you need everyone contributing. That’s what we’ve got now, and I think that’s important.”

Now Locke is one of the leading cogs for Kurt Kleinendorst, who is in his 12th year of coaching but first with Binghamton, though his two-year contract is almost certain to be extended. He started with the ECHL’s Raleigh Icecaps (1991-94), was an assistant with the IHL’s San Diego Gulls (1994-95), returned to Raleigh (1995-97) and then got his first NHL job as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils. But Kleinendorst lasted only one season in the big leagues and then took a five-year sabbatical before taking over the AHL’s Lowell Devils in 2006-09. He led the U.S. Under-18 developmental team to a gold medal last year, earning the Binghamton job and now a shot at the AHL’s top prize.

Joy Lindsay wrote a terrific story on Kurt that appeared in the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin on Friday. I recommend you visit the paper’s website for a good read.

WISHING WEIGHT WELL

Here’s hoping Doug Weight, another former Rangers draft pick, enjoys as much success as Kleinendorst on the coaching – and hopefully management – front.

Weight made an emotional retirement announcement as a player Thursday, ending a successful 19-year pro career that began as the Rangers’ second-round selection in 1990 and ended as captain and mentor to the rebuilding Islanders.

The 40-year-old Weight was expected to call it a career after playing in only 19 games last season because of a back injury, but he’ll remain with the Islanders as an assistant to coach Jack Capuano, elevated from the Sound Tigers on Nov. 15 as interim coach and then named coach April 12, and a special advisor to general manager Garth Snow.

“I knew the writing was on the wall and it was something I was going to have to face,” said Weight, who had 1,033 points in 1,238 games, the sixth-highest point total for an American-born player. “Saying goodbye and never playing again, it’s terrible. It’s tough. It’s a sickening, sad feeling. But it’s also a new chapter to hopefully the greatest chapter of my life.”

Weight spent three seasons with the Rangers before being traded to the Edmonton Oilers n 1993 as part of the building of the Blueshirts’ 1994 Stanley Cup championship team. He became a four-time All-Star with the Oilers and St. Louis Blues and was a key member of the U.S. World Cup gold medal team in 1996, a three-time U.S. Olympian, including a silver medal in 2002 in Salt Lake City, and a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

“His playing career speaks for itself,” Snow said. “And his value to this team’s young corps has been immeasurable.”

Emerging starts John Tavares and Matt Moulson lived in Weight’s guest house, and now he will be mentoring and being a sounding board to them, other Sound Tigers graduates and former Wolf Pack wing P.A. Parenteau, who also acted a guiding light for the younger players.

Weight, who spent five games behind the bench late last season, will primarily be in charge of designing the Islanders’ power play and being involved with Snow in personnel and front-office decisions. He said he’s “leaning towards the management side” rather than getting into coaching.

“It’s going to be an easy transition for me,” Weight said. “I’ll be at every game and will feed off their energy. I am not worried about the dynamic, at all. … I honestly believe this will be a playoff team next season, and I’m thrilled to continue to be a part of it.”

Before that, Weight will be a studio analyst for the NHL Network during the Stanley Cup finals. Bet he’ll have a story on Malhotra regardless of whether Manny is playing or watching.

From the entire Berlet family, have a terrific Memorial Day weekend

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