Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals Saturday night could have even more emotion than the scintillating opener that the Vancouver Canucks won 1-0 over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night on Raffi Torres’ goal with only 18.5 seconds left.
Canucks center Manny Malhotra, who played for the New York Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack at the start of his 12-year pro career, practiced Friday with Jeff Tambellini and Victor Oreskovich, the wings on the fourth line in Game 1, indicating Malhotra could be on the verge of a miraculous comeback.
Malhotra hasn’t played since March 16, when he sustained a serious injury to his left eye when hit by a deflected puck in a game against the Colorado Avalanche. He has had two surgeries and likely will have a third, but general manager Mike Gillis denied reports Malhotra recently underwent an emergency operation, saying the 31-year-old had endured “multiple little, small procedures throughout this entire time” that are common for victims of eye injuries.
Malhotra was said to be done for the season — something he conveyed to his teammates during a players meeting — and his career in jeopardy, but now he could make his debut in the NHL’s showcase event.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was coy when asked for update on Malhotra after practice, saying he’s “day to day.” Gee, Alain, aren’t we all?
When asked how Malhotra looked, Vigneault said, “Skated well.”
Gee, coach, thanks for your enthusiasm. I know everything at playoff time is out of the CIA/FBI handbook, but show some emotion.
Vigneault did say that if Malhotra is in lineup, he’ll have a specific purpose.
“If Manny does play, obviously he’s one of the best faceoff guys in the league, so he would be used a little bit more in our end without a doubt,” Vigneault said.
Malhotra, the Rangers’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in 1998 was second in the NHL in faceoff wins at 61.7 percent. But he wants to make sure he can have a positive impact, be more than just a ceremonial player, especially since his eye was more swollen and closed than it was a week ago despite taking three days off after something happened after he practiced Monday.
“I realize the severity of the injury,” said Malhotra, a standout defensive forward who helped the Canucks lead the league in penalty killing in the regular season and was finally cleared to play Friday. “It’s about me feeling I can contribute. “I realize the intensity of the moment and realize the intensity of play has picked up since I last played. [But] this is not me wanting to have a sentimental shift out there and be a part of it all. It’s the fact I feel that I could contribute something to the team.
“I didn’t want this to be a sideshow. We always talk about in our dressing room that the whole is much greater than the individuals. We have a very strong focus in the room. It’s where it needs to be and I don’t want anything to sidetrack that. … I wish I could put it into a percentage for you, but it’s going to be day-to-day. I’ll see how I feel after the morning skate. We’ll make a decision at that point.”
But Malhotra’s presence isn’t derailing the Canucks, just helping and inspiring them.
“He has been such a huge part of our team all year, one of the main reasons why we’re here and why we got in the playoffs and why we won the Presidents’ Trophy,” Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. “For him not to be able to participate … it hurts you a lot. But it looks like he might have the opportunity to play.”
Torres, who has known Malhotra since their minor hockey days in Greater Toronto, said: “It’s amazing to see his recovery and the positive influence he’s had on us all through the playoffs. And now to maybe play in these finals is incredible.”
It would be especially incredible after Malhotra called a team meeting after his first surgery in New York and told players he was done for the season and they would have to win the Stanley Cup without him.
“It was one of those moments when it’s really somber in the dressing room, and the fact it was a guy like Manny made it extra tough,” Bieksa said. “After that talk, I don’t think anyone expected him to be back here skating with us, let alone playing. So obviously, we’re really happy for him.”
“It was very emotional,” defenseman Keith Ballard said. “I can’t imagine the mental struggle it has been for him every day. To have him on the ice, it’s so exciting. You could see it the first day he came out with us in a track suit (on May 12). Imagine what it means … if he gets the chance to play. I can only imagine how much that would mean to him.”
Here’s hoping the Malhotra Miracle reaches fruition at home. It would make for quite a scene when he steps on the Rogers Arena ice Saturday night.