VANCOUVER – What seemed almost impossible just two months ago became a reality Saturday with the announcement that Vancouver Canucks centre Manny Malhotra has been cleared to play in the Stanley Cup final.
Malhotra suffered a serious eye injury March 16. At the time it was thought his season was over and there were concerns about his vision recovering.
“It’s a very exciting prospect for me at this point,” Malhotra said.
“Coming from where I was two months ago, making the statement the season was over, to potentially having a possibility to play in the Stanley Cup final is incredibility exciting for me.”
The Canucks will open the Stanley Cup against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday in Vancouver. Coach Alain Vigneault would not say if Malhotra will dress for the game.
“Manny has officially been cleared to play,” Vigneault said. “He is basically on a day-to-day basis.
“I don’t discuss lineup issues.”
Malhotra has undergone several surgeries since being hit in the left eye. On Saturday, the eye still looked bloodshot and the lid drooped.
He didn’t want to give any specifics on the treatments he’s received or what procedures may be needed in the future.
Malhotra was composed while speaking with the media for the first time since his injury. He did choke up with emotion when talking about the support he received from the Canuck organization and his teammates.
“We have a real family environment around here,” Malhotra said, his voice catching. “We’re here to win, we are here to play hockey.
“More important is the level of care we have for each other in the room. We are hockey players. At the end of the day, the level of respect we have for one another as friends, husbands, brothers and fathers, that really came to the forefront the last couple of months.”
The 30-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., was hurt when a pass deflected off the stick of Colorado Avalanche defenceman Erik Johnson into his eye.
The Canucks announced March 21 he was lost for the season.
But Malhotra has been skating with the team since May 12 and on Friday he was cleared for contact.
Malhotra learned earlier this week he might be given the green light to play again.
“I have been monitored almost daily for almost two months,” he said. “The doctors were pretty pleased with the progression and the way things were looking.
“They felt and saw there was an opportunity that if I felt confident enough and physically ready enough with the contact and awareness out there, playing could be a possibility.”
Malhotra’s teammates are anxious to see him return.
“The main thing for him right now is timing,” said forward Daniel Sedin.
“He’s skating really well and he’s moving the puck well. We are happy. He’s going to get better every day.”
Malhotra said he didn’t rush into the decision to play again.
“I have had very in-depth conversations with the doctors,” he said. “I can assure you I wasn’t flipping a coin in the change room deciding whether I was going to play or not.
“They (doctors) have assured me everything is as it should be. Everything continues to look good. There is still some healing that needs to take place.”
In the past Malhotra did not wear a facemask. He said he will wear a full mask if he plays this season and look for some sort of shield for next year.
Still, he isn’t sure when he might return to the lineup.
“As we get closer to Game 1 we will have a few more days of practice,” he said. “This is not going to continue on and be a side story for this Cup final.
“Myself and my teammates are focused on the task at hand. If I feel more comfortable, if I am game-ready, the coaches will make the decision at that time. If I’m not ready, that’s the case.”
Malhotra is a popular and respected player among his Canucks teammates, and has been seen around the Canucks dressing room, usually wearing dark glasses. He also has travelled with the club.
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 centred Vancouver’s third line of Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen, a shutdown unit put on the ice to protect leads. Malhotra also killed penalties and usually took important defensive zone faceoffs.
During the season he had 11 goals and 19 assists in 72 games. He was second in the NHL with a 61.7 per cent faceoff percentage when he was hurt.