Canucks' Manny Malhotra has his eyes on the prize
If you need to know the difference that a year makes in the life of a professional athlete, just ask Vancouver Canucks forward Manny Malhotra.
Twelve months ago, Malhotra was in a battle to save the sight in his left eye after getting hit in the face by a puck during a game at Rogers Arena. As his teammates celebrated the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history last April and began their journey to the Stanley Cup final, Malhotra had more important things to think about than hockey. When the playoffs started last spring, Malhotra was busy shuttling between Vancouver and New York to undergo delicate medical procedures that ultimately saved his sight and allowed him to resume his hockey career. He returned in the cup final, but—given all he’d been through—he was a mere shadow of the strong defensive presence he’d been. He really wasn’t able to do much to help the Canucks against the Boston Bruins.
A year later, as the Canucks open the playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings, the 31-year-old is in a much better place. Malhotra is on the ice—not in an operating room—and expected to play a key defensive role on a Canucks team that believes it has what it takes to get back to the Stanley Cup final and this time get its hands on the big silver trophy.
Despite not having much of an off-season in which to train due to further procedures to correct his vision last summer, Malhotra managed to suit up for 78 of the Canucks' 82 regular-season games in 2011–12. He scored seven goals and added 11 assists, but the veteran centre’s biggest contribution to the hockey club came in the face-off circle, where he had the fourth-best winning percentage in the NHL.
The Canucks are a puck-possession team and like to have control of the game as much as possible, and that begins with winning face-offs. Despite all he’s been through to restore his vision, Malhotra didn’t lose any of his ability to win draws. That makes him a valuable contributor on the penalty kill and late in close hockey games—virtually every night in the postseason—when the Canucks will put his skills to good use.
“You always talk about being in the playoffs because this is the most fun time of the year,” Malhotra told the Georgia Straight in a dressing-room interview moments after the Canucks defeated the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 in their April 7 regular-season finale. “These are the games you want to be in, where every night it means something. I’ve never taken this opportunity or this game for granted.”
At this time last year, Malhotra’s role with the hockey club was reduced to that of a wounded cheerleader. Considered a valuable part of the Canucks’ leadership group, it’s tough to lead by example when you can’t get in the lineup and contribute the way you’d like. But now healthy and with a renewed vigour for the game, Malhotra’s vision is good and his voice is being heard.
For that reason, Malhotra was named the Canucks' nominee for the Bill Masterton Award: a league trophy presented annually to a player who demonstrates perseverance, dedication, and commitment to the game. Malhotra, well aware that expectations in this city are sky-high for the Canucks, is excited to have the chance to help the team reach its lofty goals.
“It’s always fun to be a part of something like this, and I think it’s exciting for the fans,” he says of the buzz created by the hockey club this time of year. “I’m going to go out and enjoy the playoffs for what they are and the role I’ll be given, and I’m looking forward to doing good things with this group.” A lengthy playoff run for the Canucks must start with a series victory over the Kings. Malhotra scored the only goal in the final regular-season matchup between the teams on March 26 at Rogers Arena.
Although offensive contributions are not expected from him—even if they’d certainly be welcomed—Malhotra needs to do the little things that can make a big difference at this time of year. He needs to win face-offs, finish checks, and make sure he’s responsible in his own end. He knows that if all members of the team play their roles, the Canucks have the personnel to challenge for the Stanley Cup for a second straight season.
“The challenge in the playoffs is consistency,” Malhotra explains. “We’ve proven we can beat teams when we play the right way. It’s just a matter of being consistent on a nightly basis. Every team in this league has incredibly talented players; they have star power and offensive abilities. So nothing really changes when you look from team to team. The only difference is how we execute and the intensity we bring to our game. That’s the factor we’re concerned about every night.”
As they begin the quest for the first cup title in franchise history, this version of the Vancouver Canucks seems much deeper up front than last year’s team. And having a healthy Malhotra in the mix is, without question, a part of that.
At this time last year, Malhotra wasn’t certain what his future held in terms of hockey. And there was no doubt that his concerns stretched beyond the game he loved and played for a living. But now, with his sight restored and a clean bill of health, Malhotra has his eyes on the prize—and he plans to do whatever he can to make the Vancouver Canucks Stanley Cup champions.