FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

The Manny Malhotra Miracle Saga took another major positive step Saturday.

And the former Hartford Whalers and New York Rangers forward had a difficult time hiding his emotions in his first media interview since a deflected puck to his left eye in a game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 16 seemingly ended his season and threatened his career.

Instead, the Vancouver Canucks center was cleared to play in the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins that begin Wednesday night in Vancouver, improving his status from a spiritual leader to a possible contributor for pro hockey’s most cherished prize.

Malhotra, the Rangers’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in 1998, made it through about 10 minutes discussing his injury before he started to break down. When asked what he learned in the 10 weeks since the injury, Malhotra paused several times, his voice cracking as he talked about the support he has received.

“It really puts things into perspective,” Malhotra told reporters in Vancouver. “We’re hockey players. But at the end of the day the level of respect we have for one another as friends, husbands, brothers, fathers, that really came to the forefront.”

Malhotra, who has had two surgeries and could need a third, choked up when discussing the “uplifting” support from his wife, management, coaches and players throughout the NHL. He singled out two players who overcame similar injuries, former Canucks defenseman Mattias Ohlund, who was among the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated by the Bruins 1-0 in Game 7 on Friday night, and former Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets teammate Bryan Berard.

“(Berard) is a real good friend of mine who was a big help in my recovery giving me guidance on what to expect,” Malhotra said.

But talking about the Canucks organization affected Malhotra the most.

“We talk about our team concept all the time, we have a real family environment around here,” said a bald-headed Malhotra, sporting a “playoff beard” like the rest of his teammates. “We’re here to play hockey, but more importantly the level of care we have for each other in the room, and the important we put on our personal health and the health and well being of our families came first and foremost.”

It sounded exactly like the classiness that Malhotra always showed with the Wolf Pack and Rangers, who drafted him as much for his character as his on-ice attributes. It’s also why Malhotra won’t play in Game 1 unless he is convince he can help the franchise win its first Stanley Cup. The only time the Canucks previously reached the finals was 1994, when the Rangers ended their 54-year drought in seven games.

“I can assure you I wasn’t flipping a coin in the change room deciding whether I was going to play or not,” said Malhotra, who turned 31 on May 18. “I’ve been monitored almost daily the past two months now, and the doctors were pleased with the progression and the way things were looking.

“They felt and saw there was an opportunity, if I felt confident enough, physically ready enough with the contact and with the awareness out there, playing could be a possibility.”

Malhotra said the possibility of playing again this season only became a reality in the last few days. He wasn’t allowed to exercise until May 12, when he first rejoined his teammates on the ice wearing a tracksuit and full-face cage on his helmet. He wasn’t cleared for contact until Friday.

“I realize there is a difference between taking two months off and coming back mid-January and taking two months off and coming back the beginning of June,” Malhotra said. “Obviously there’s a lot at stake right now. The pace and tempo of play is a lot higher, and you have the two best teams in the National Hockey League going at it.

“It’s been a dream of mine to play for the Stanley Cup, but at the same time I’m not going to put myself out there to be treated like a little brother. I know there’s not going be any gimmes out there.”

But at least his conditioning is quickly improving.

“You never really know until you step into a game,” Malhotra said. “But as I skate and do a little extra after practice and today with the scrimmage and being more involved, the legs are coming back, the lungs are coming back.”

But Malhotra wouldn’t get into the specifics of how well he sees out of an eye that’s still blood shot, droopy, swollen and discolored. He will wear the full-face shield this season and experiment with a half shield in the future.

“I’ve never been 20-20, so I can say honestly that I’m not 20-20 in that eye, but I’ve been medically cleared,” Malhotra said. “The spatial awareness is there.”

Malhotra signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract with the Canucks last summer and was their third-line center and faceoff specialist, winning 61.7 percent, which was second in the NHL, and helping the Canucks to No. 1 on the penalty kill. Maxim Lapierre has filled the center spot in Malhotra’s absence, but the Canucks haven’t played their fourth line much in the playoffs, so Malhotra could be eased back into the lineup.

Malhotra said sitting in on penalty-kill meetings and working on face-offs the last two weeks “was huge for my confidence and my sanity.” His return in the Stanley Cup finals could be an emotional boost for his teammates.

“It’s phenomenal that he’s at this point,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. “We’ll see what happens here as we move forward.”

If Malhotra is reasonably healthy, he makes the favored Canucks that much more formidable, especially down the middle. As stated previously, here’s hoping the Malhotra Miracle reaches fruition but not at the expense of his career and, more importantly, his future life.

If you want to see the entire 15-minute Malhotra interview, visit the Vancouver Sun website at www.vancouversun.com.

SENATORS WIN IN OVERTIME, TIE CALDER CUP FINALS

It took more than the length of a normal game, but the visiting Binghamton Senators got a tie-breaking goal from center Jim O’Brien at 7:54 of overtime for a 2-1 victory over the Houston Aeros before 9,002 at the Toyota Center on Saturday night.

O’Brien scored his third goal of the playoffs off an assist from Erik Condra on just the Senators’ second shot of overtime and 21st of the game. But it was enough to get the Eastern Conference champions even at one game apiece in the best-of seven finals.

“It felt great,” O’Brien told reporters after the game. “It’s a fine line, and we’re happy to come out of here with a win. We’d feel a lot worse if we were down two games to nothing, so we feel great right now. We’re going back to home ice, and hopefully we’ll get some wins there.”

The Senators rebounded after having their eight-game road winning streak ended by a 3-1 loss on Friday night, one shy of the AHL record of nine set by the 1998 Philadelphia Phantoms. It also was the first time that the Senators were limited to one goal since their post-season opener, a 2-1 loss at Manchester on April 14.

The Senators didn’t do much better Saturday night, but it was enough to give them a chance to win their first Calder Cup at home. The next three games will be at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, would be in Houston on June 7 and 9.

“It was huge,” Senators 19-year-old goalie Robin Lehner (28 saves) said. “If we wouldn’t win, it wouldn’t be over, but would be another Manchester series with everything on the line every game. This gives us a little bit of room to breath and start to play our game. I think we had a good effort, but I still know that we can play a lot, lot better.”

First-year coach Kurt Kleinendorst echoed those sentiments.

“We knew we had to be better,” Kleinendorst said. “I think we were a little better, but we’re still going to have to be better yet. That’s a good team over there, and I think this is what it’s going to be like. I thought the effort was there, but we can be better and some of our key players can still be better. We played hard, and I feel like we deserved what we got. This one could have gone the other well as well, but we’re in the driver’s seat.”

The Senators again scored first on a goal by Bobby Butler, but this time it took only 1:45 as the wing who played 36 games with the parent Ottawa Senators this season scored his rookie-leading 12th goal of the playoffs on a power play. The 24-year-old Butler has scored in five of the last six games and six of his last eight.

But the Aeros quickly countered on their first power play after a Butler high-sticking penalty, as Casey Wellman scored from Robbie Earl at 4:27.

The Aeros had a 27-19 shot advantage through regulation, including 10-3 in the third period and failed to convert a power play early in overtime as the game remained tied for 63:27 until O’Brien finally broke through against Houston rookie goalie Matt Hackett (19 saves). Lehner improved to 11-3 with a 2.70 goals-against average, .912 save percentage and three shutouts in the playoffs.

“It was a game that could go either way, and we played it as such,” Aeros coach Mike Yeo said. “That’s not really our style. We did some good enough things to keep ourselves in the game, and it was a 50-50 game. Against a team like that, with their skill level and their ability to counter and their ability to take advantage of mistakes, we don’t want to play that type of game.”

The Aeros had won the opener Friday night as former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Jed Ortmeyer scored the first 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 their first game in nine days since winning the Eastern Conference finals with a four-game sweep of the Charlotte Checkers without ever trailing.

The game was scoreless until Butler scored with 3:43 left in the second period. Ortmeyer, who has played in 310 NHL games, tied it at 1:47 into the third period and then notched the winner at the 6:09. Former first-round draft pick Colton Gillies and defenseman Marco Scandella assisted on both goals, which were Ortmeyer’s fifth and sixth of the playoffs.

Warren Peters, making his second straight Calder Cup finals appearance after having a shot at the title with Texas last year, added an empty-net goal after the Senators pulled Lehner, whose 38 saves were 15 more than Hackett had.

“We had a lot of energy from the crowd,” Ortmeyer said, alluding to the 8,010 that until Saturday night’s all-time high playoff crowd was the most at the Toyota Center since June 7, 2003, when 8,080 showed up as the Aeros hosted the Hamilton Bulldogs in Game 5 of the Calder Cup finals on the way to their only title. “It was loud out there, and we got a quick goal (in the third period) to the get crowd into it and give us a little spark.

“(Lehner) played well and made some big saves. We were trying to get pucks behind him and use the warm weather to tire him out. That fact that we just got done playing a seven-game series, we were trying to get a jump on them right away.”

The Aeros advanced to the Calder Cup finals with a 4-3 victory over Hamilton in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night as captain and South Windsor Jon DiSalvatore scored off a scramble with only 1:13 left.

Friday’s game marked the return of Aeros center Corey Locke, who had not been to the Toyota Center since Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against the Manitoba Moose in 2009. Locke, the AHL’s MVP and leading scorer this season, played for the Wolf Pack and Rangers last season before signing a two-way deal with the Ottawa Senators. Locke had 21 goals and a league-high 65 assists in 69 regular-season games with Binghamton and one assist in five NHL games with Ottawa, the first NHL point of his career.

“Obviously I had a great time when I played here,” said Locke, who set an Aeros playoff record with 23 points in 2009. “The city was great, but now we are down her to play them in a playoff series.”

Locke had two shots but didn’t figure in the scoring in Game 1. Saturday night, he assisted on Butler’s goal, giving him one goal and 10 assists in 12 playoffs games after missing the first three with a shoulder injury that had sidelined him at the end of the regular season.

ANNIVERSARY OF MEMORABLE WOLF PACK MOMENTS

Ironically, Ortmeyer was part of two memorable Wolf Pack moments that had anniversaries on Saturday. On May 28, 2004, he scored two goals as the Wolf Pack defeated Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 4-1 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to tie the series at three games apiece. But the next day, the Penguins won 2-1 in overtime in Game 7 before being swept by the Milwaukee Admirals in the Calder Cup finals.

Four years earlier, on May 28, 2000, Brad Smyth, the Wolf Pack’s career leader in goals and points, scored twice in a 3-1 victory over the Rochester Americans in Game 3 of the Calder Cup finals. Three games later, on June 4, the Wolf Pack won their only Calder Cup with a 4-1 victory in Rochester. The greatest team in the franchise’s 14-year history also won the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference regular season titles under the guidance of AHL Hall of Famer John Paddock and assistant coach Mike Busniuk. Paddock was the interim coach of the Adirondack Red Wings early this season before relinquishing his duties to future coach Joe Paterson and focusing on his job as assistant general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers.

MORE SIGNS OF THRASHERS MOVE TO WINNIPEG

While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman continues to deny reports that the financially strapped Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba, there are more signs the deal is imminent.

Winnipeg police have drawn up plans to deal with the celebration that will follow the return of the NHL to the Canadian prairie town. Police said they’ll turn a blind eye to violations of the city’s open container laws but won’t tolerate any disorderly drunks.

The Thrashers’ move would bring the relocation of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose to St. John’s, Newfoundland, which had an AHL team for 14 seasons (1991-2005) before the parent Toronto Maple Leafs moved their top affiliate to Toronto and named it the Marlies. There were reports the impending move would be announced Friday in St. John’s, but that was delayed as the Thrashers’ relocation to Winnipeg was finalized.

The NHL doesn’t like to make a major announcement during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but something could be announced before the finals start Wednesday night. Regardless, it’s an almost certainty that True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg will purchase the Thrashers in time for the NHL Board of Governors to approve the deal on June 21, three days before the start of the draft at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and for the team to play the 2011-12 season in Winnipeg.

There was a report that the sale was on hold pending a season-ticket drive, but NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said there was no such condition attached to the transfer. It would have been unreal if there had been such a requirement because the NHL went ballistic a few years ago when Jim Balsillie conducted a similar drive to demonstrate support for an NHL team in Hamilton, Ontario.

A latest ditch bid to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta was a report earlier last week that former NHL player Anson Carter was fronting a group interested in buying the Thrashers, the NBA Atlanta Hawks and the rights to play in Phillips Arena in Atlanta. But the Carter report sent out a press release Friday, saying it had withdrawn from talks with the Atlanta Spirit Group earlier this year.

The Winnipeg Jets averaged 11,116 in their last of 17 seasons in Manitoba in 1995-96 compared to the 13,469 the Thrashers claimed last season. But the Thrashers’ announced attendance and the actual body count in Phillips Arena rarely matched.

But the Thrashers’ average was more than the 12,188 of the Phoenix Coyotes, another struggling team on the Winnipeg radar that the NHL has bent over backward to keep in the desert. But the city of Glendale, Calif., has committed $50 million of taxpayers’ dollars to the NHL in an attempt to keep the main tenant for the city-owned Jobing.com Arena. Meanwhile, Atlanta officials have made it clear they have neither the money nor the will to bail out the Thrashers.

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