FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1I can only imagine what it was like inside the Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Saturday night.

I might have been more than 2,000 miles away, but I’m not afraid to admit I got a bit choked up when I heard the raucous crowd chanting “Man-ny, Man-ny” as I watched Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals on TV.

So much for no cheering in the press box – or from a living room couch.

My wife thought I was kidding when I said the 18,860 in the Rogers Arena a continent away were chanting Manny Malhotra’s name before Game 2 between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins. Then she wondered why I was getting emotionally involved.

Easy. I’ve covered all kinds of sports at all kinds of levels for more than four decades, and I would be hard pressed to find a more classy, upbeat and cooperative person than Manny Malhotra.

The New York Rangers made Malhotra the seventh overall pick in 1998 as much for his character as his playing ability, and I quickly understood why during his time with the Hartford Wolf Pack, whom he helped win the 2000 Calder Cup, the only professional hockey prize earned by a team in Hartford.

So I got a little giddy when the TV camera zeroed in on Malhotra during the singing of the national anthem. And I felt really, really good for Malhotra when he skated his first shift less than two minutes into the game. I also felt a bit of apprehensive, hoping one of the Big Bad Bruins, who had vowed to be more physical, wouldn’t end Malhotra’s career with a jarring hit that would permanently injure the left eye that had been struck and bloodied by an errant puck in a game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 16.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

“I was excited to have a chance to play, but it was probably the most nervous I’ve been in my entire career,” Malhotra said after the Canucks’ stirring 3-2 victory on Alex Burrows’ second goal of the game and third in overtime in the playoffs at 11 seconds, the second-fastest in NHL finals history. “Coming to the rink felt normal, the same game day routine, but the nerves kept getting to me. Right from warm-up it was kind of sensory overload. All the noise, the crowd getting into it, the towels waving. It was the first time I’ve seen a home crowd that excited in playoffs.

“I guess I really didn’t settle down until my first shift, although the ovation I got put a little bit more nerves on me. Once I got out there and won my first draw and felt a little bit better, I just tried to skate. (Linemates) Vic (Oreskovich) and Tamby (Jeff Tambellini) played really well so that made the transition a lot easier.”

Typical Manny, giving credit to someone else when he deserved the most less than two months after he wondered if he would ever play again. Certainly not this season and perhaps never again, at least not in an active role as a professional. Heck, he even said as much to his teammates in a players meeting after his first of two surgeries in New York, with a third scheduled after the finals.

But the most famous fourth-line center in hockey history got an ovation and heard his name shouted from the moment the fans first saw the man with the full face shield come out of the locker room last for the pregame warm-up.

Malhotra said the ovation was almost overwhelming.

“It definitely got me thinking from March 16 to where I am now,” said Malhotra, who replaced Alexandre Bolduc. “It’s a privilege to play in front of fans like this. When you come to Vancouver, to say the fans here are passionate would be a gross understatement. To be out there again, to hear them cheering, to hear an ovation like that it definitely makes you feel like a Canuck, a part of this family.”

A few minutes into the first period, a brief video tribute to Malhotra was shown on the Jumbotron. When it ended, the camera cut to Malhotra, but he wasn’t watching. He was talking to Tambellini, working on strategy for the next shift.

And don’t think his coach and teammates didn’t notice the reception and the contributions of the Manny Malhotra Miracle.

“It was a real happy moment for our whole group to be able to put Manny in the lineup and to have him play the way he did,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “He did exactly what we all expected. He was real good on face-offs. He was good on the ice. He created a scoring chance. That (fourth) line played more minutes than throughout the San Jose series and I think obviously more than in the first game against Boston. … So I’m excited to have him back and I think he’s only going to get better as we move forward here.”

“It was amazing. It really got us going early,” Burrows said. “Two months ago, we never thought we’d see him back. It’s a huge bonus for us.”

“His first shift was typical Manny,” defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. “He’s been off for months now, and we’re talking about six-seven-eight weeks where he couldn’t do a thing. He couldn’t even raise his heart-rate. It was very impressive. His first shift he wins a face-off, just like the old Manny and then he has the nice re-direct into the zone. It was perfect.”

Yes, Malhotra, the NHL’s No. 2 faceoff man in the regular season at 61.7 percent, won his first against Chris Kelly when he first stepped on the ice 1:48 into the game and went 6-for-7 for the night, a staggering 86 percent.

Pretty impressive for someone who didn’t even know for sure if he was going to play until after lunch. But he played 7:26, which was more minutes than the Canucks’ fourth-line centers played most of the playoffs. He had 13 shifts, was a regular penalty killer, had one takeaway and one blocked shot. The more time he can log, the less it takes out of Ryan Kesler and the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel.

It had been a huge loss for the Canucks when they lost the versatility and leadership of Malhotra, though he was around the team for several weeks before his surprise return to practice May 12 that led to his clearance to play on Friday and return to the lineup 24 hours later. Signed as a free agent last season to bolster the Canucks’ third line, Malhotra immediately established himself as a leader, running pre-training camp drills at informal skates despite being the newcomer on a closely knit team full of returning veterans. He was named an alternate captain on the eve of the regular season and established himself as the shutdown center the Canucks had been lacking. He stayed involved while sidelined, acting like an extra coach by sitting in on penalty-killing meetings and advising teammates on everything from face-offs to shooting to handling playoff pressure.

When Malhotra rejoined the team for an informal pre-practice skate, assistant coach Rick Bowness said Malhotra wouldn’t return this season unless there’s “a complete miracle.” Saturday night, the miracle had happened.

Talk about inspiring.

“We were all excited for Manny,” said goalie Roberto Luongo, who made 28 saves as the Canucks took a 2-0 lead in their quest for their first Stanley Cup title. “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.”

True, but Malhotra knew there was a long ways to go.

“Coming back from any time off is always a tough one,” he said. “Just things like spatial awareness, knowing how much time you have when you get a puck. A lot of plays I made tonight were just chipping the puck in, chipping the puck out. As we go forward here, I’ll become more confident with the puck again, try to make more plays, skate with the puck. I think playing seven minutes in my first game back is a good transition into things.”

Seven of the best and most emotional minutes in hockey history, and they couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. New Englanders, especially around Boston, might despise Bullows for biting Patrice Bergeron’s hand in Game 1 and then getting two goals and an assist in a game they didn’t think he should even play in, but they should applaud and appreciate what Manny Malhotra has accomplished since March 16.

I did.

ANNIVERSARY OF WOLF PACK TITLE

Saturday was the 11th anniversary of the Wolf Pack winning their only Calder Cup title. Center Derek Armstrong had a goal and two asissts and claimed the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the playoff MVP after the Wolf Pack won 4-1 at Rochester in Game 6.

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