VANCOUVER – The excitement the Vancouver Canucks feel over the best campaign in franchise history has been dampened by a season-ending eye injury to centre Manny Malhotra.
Malhotra has undergone two surgeries after being hit in the left eye by a puck on March 16.
Losing the faceoff specialist, who has become a leader on the ice and in the dressing room, puts what the Canucks have accomplished in perspective, said captain Henrik Sedin.
“It always does when you see injuries like this,” Sedin said Thursday, prior to Vancouver’s game against the Los Angeles Kings.
“He’s a big part of our team. He’s a great guy. He’s got a lot of friends in this room. It’s tough to see where he is. For us, it’s not about the hockey player now. It’s about him and getting back to a normal life.”
The Canucks have wrapped up first place in the NHL’s Western Conference. Heading into the game against L.A., Vancouver already had established team records for points (111), wins (51) and road wins (26).
Malhotra was hurt when a pass deflected off the stick of Colorado Avalanche defenceman Erik Johnson into his eye.
The 30-year-old, who does not wear a visor, underwent a first surgery immediately after the incident. The Canucks announced on March 21 that he was lost for the season.
Malhotra underwent a second surgery Tuesday in New York.
Prior to that surgery NBA star Steve Nash expressed concern about Malhotra on his Twitter feed.
“I need my brother in law, Manny Malhotra of the Vancouver Canucks, to have a successful eye surgery tomorrow saving his eye and vision,” Nash wrote.
Malhotra is married to Nash’s sister Joann.
The Canucks have been tight-lipped on Malhotra’s condition.
Coach Alain Vigneault said he’s spoken to Malhotra since the second surgery but did not disclose any details Thursday.
“Manny will be back here in Vancouver in a little while,” said Vigneault. “We’ll see what happens when he gets back.”
Malhotra isn’t flashy on the ice, and his work was sometimes overlooked, but he was a major contributor to the Canucks’ success.
He centred Vancouver’s third line of Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen. He took most of the important faceoffs, starred defensively on a team that has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL, and killed penalties.
“You can’t replace a guy like Manny, whether it be on or off the ice,” said Vigneault. “You have to do it by committee.
“We’ve had other serious injuries to key personnel. We’ve been able to do it by committee and find ways to win. That’s what we are trying to do right now, just sort out what will give us the best look.”
The Canucks have continued to win without Malhotra, but the nature of his injury has sent a shiver through his teammates.
“Not just as a friend, but as a human being, everybody feels for him,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “Everybody across the league has expressed some sort of remorse for him.
“I’ve had friends on other teams ask me how he’s doing that have never met him before. Nobody wants to see injuries like that affect your life afterwards.”
Malhotra’s injury has caused players like Bieksa and Kings’ defenceman Willie Mitchell to consider wearing a visor.
“I feel awful for him,” said Mitchell, a former Canuck who signed as a free agent with Los Angeles last summer. “It makes everyone think about wearing visors.”
Mitchell has had his own brushes with serious injuries.
He missed the last half of last season with a concussion. In early March he needed 53 stitches to close a cut after a shot by Kyle Turris of the Phoenix Coyotes hit him in the face.
“What’s the difference between me and Manny?” Mitchell said. “Luck, right?
“It was inside the mouth and very easily could have been the same spot.”
Malhotra, a former first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, signed a US$7.5-million, three-year contract as a free agent last summer with the Canucks. He was second in the NHL with a 61.7 per cent faceoff win percentage when he was injured.
He had 11 goals and 30 points in 72 games.