VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Manny Malhotra made it all the way back from a career-threatening eye injury, hitting the ice with his Vancouver Canucks teammates for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Malhotra, wearing a full-face shield, was the last player on the ice for warmups and he got the biggest cheer from the crowd as it made its way into the building on Saturday night. He was greeted by more cheers and chants of "Manny, Manny" when he beat Boston's Chris Kelly on a faceoff 1:48 into the game that marked his first career shift in the finals.
"For me it will obviously be a very touching moment," Malhotra said Saturday morning when his playing status was still a gametime decision. "It's obviously an incredible position to be in. Everybody on the ice tonight has dreamed about this at some point or another in their careers or growing up. I realize the significance of the moment."
The 10-year NHL veteran also knows the importance of not being overcome by it.
"Once the puck's dropped, I'm going to have to bring it back to basics," Malhotra said. "Just another game, do the things I've done my whole career"
It's a career Malhotra thought might have ended on March 16, when a deflected puck hit him in the left eye. He left a trail of blood as he slid along the ice before being rushed off. Malhotra had the first of two major operations later that night, and the Canucks said his season was over five days later.
That reversal made Saturday's return that much more remarkable.
"Manny has been around the team throughout this injury, the last couple weeks," Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. "He's been a huge part of our success this year. So for us, it's going to be a big boost."
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 last 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."