VANCOUVER – Face-off ace Manny Malhotra will be lost to the Vancouver Canucks indefinitely with an eye injury that has already required one surgical procedure.
Coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Thursday that Malhotra’s vision was affected after he was hit by a puck in Wednesday’s 4-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
Malhotra, who does not wear a visor, was to see a specialist later Thursday.
“I couldn’t speculate until the specialist sees him and more tests are done,” Vigneault said when asked if there was any indication how long Malhotra will be out of the lineup.
The Canucks, who became the first club to clinch a playoff berth with Wednesday’s win, are used to plugging lineup holes this season. They’ve used 39 players this season, most in the league.
The third-line centre, who is second among NHL face-off men with a 61.7 win percentage, was struck by a deflected puck in the second period as he skated near the boards in the neutral zone.
Blood spattered the ice and trainers quickly got a towel to Malhotra’s left eye. He went directly to a hospital.
Defenceman Kevin Bieksa, close to returning after missing 14 games with a broken foot, said Malhotra contributes more than his 11 goals and 30 points since being signed as a free agent in the off-season.
“He’s a lot more valuable,” Bieksa said of the Toronto native. “You could even call him our most valuable player for the season.
“He’s a leader in the dressing room and off the ice. He’s a voice on the bench, does a lot of things right but first and foremost we just hope he’s OK.”
Malhotra has won 778 face-offs this season including 145 when the Canucks have been short-handed.
“We’re going out (for a defensive zone draw) and we’re calling plays,” Bieksa said. “Ninety per cent of the time we’re winning face-offs and we’re able to get the puck out of our zone.
“On the penalty kill, it kills off 25 seconds if you win the first face-off.”
The Canucks are second in the NHL with an 86.4 per cent penalty kill.
“It’s unfortunate but it’s a part of hockey,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said of Malhotra’s injury. “We’ve got a big hole to fill but we’ve got some guys in here that are able to do that job.
“Even though we’ve had injuries pretty much the whole second half of the year we’ve been able to keep winning games.”
The Northwest Division-clinching win over Colorado was Vancouver’s seventh in a row. They face the Phoenix Coyotes on Friday.
Teammates were shaken by Malhotra’s injury even though its extent is unknown.
“It’s probably the scariest injury you can have because there’s long-term effects and it’s going to affect your lifestyle afterwards,” Bieksa said of eye injuries.
“We don’t want to be too presumptuous and we hope he’s OK but it’s definitely something you don’t want to take lightly.”
Vigneault said he expected other players to fill Malhotra’s role, just like they did earlier in the season when the defence corps was riddled with injuries.
“We’ve kept on performing and we’ve kept on winning and I don’t expect things to change,” he said. “We’re going to take this next little while here and try to figure it out … (he’s) not easy to replace.”
First-line centre Henrik Sedin could also see more action in the face-off circle as could trade deadline acquisition Chris Higgins.
Higgins played some shifts on Malhotra’s line with wings Jannik Hansen and Raffi Torres after setting up Maxim Lapierre for the goal that started a Canuck comeback from a two-goal deficit.
Higgins, obtained in a trade from the Florida Panthers, played with Lapierre in Montreal and prefers centre than his current right-wing role.
He has played five games for Vancouver after recovering from a broken thumb.
“I like the dimension he can bring both offensively and defensively, how strong he is on the puck,”Vigneault said. “He battles hard to keep it and he’s strong on the wall and he’s definitely going to help us down the stretch.”
Higgins said he can fill in anywhere but replacing Malhotra will not be easy.
“He’s a guy you’re not hesitant to put out there in tough situations in the game because he’ll get the job done,” Higgins said. “We’ll miss that presence in the middle.”
NOTES: The Canucks called up forward Victor Oreskovich from AHL Manitoba. He practised on Thursday and could play his 10th game for Vancouver on Friday against Phoenix … Tanner Glass, out with an upper body injury, is expected to take the morning skate but didn’t practise on Thursday … Michael Samuelsson didn’t practise and took what Vigneault called a maintenance day … The Canucks are still missing defencemen Alex Edler (back) and Andrew Alberts (broken wrist).