Vancouver Canucks counting on Manny Malhotra’s face-off prowess

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It’s not the most glamorous part of the game by any stretch of the imagination, and it likely won’t make any of the highlight reels. Manny Malhotra’s prowess in the face-off circle, though, just might win the Vancouver Canucks some hockey games this season. The guy is that good on the draw.

Winning 62.5 percent of the 664 face-offs he took, Malhotra led all NHLers who lined up for more than 50 draws last season (there were a handful of guys who skewed the stats by winning the only face-offs they took). But as far as regulars in the circle, Malhotra was the best in the business. And it was that skill and specialty more than any other that led the Canucks to put $7.5 million on the table to sign the free-agent forward to a three-year contract on July 1.

Two weeks into his first season as a Canuck, Malhotra has put his talent on display for all to see, winning 57 of the first 85 draws he has taken this year (67 percent), including an astounding 15 of 16 in a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on October 17 at Rogers Arena, where he is more than 70 percent in the early going this year.

“It’s a lot of everything,” Malhotra told the Georgia Straight with a laugh after a recent practice when asked to divulge his trade secrets. “It’s having a good balance of confidence in the circle, your timing being on, and making sure you get into a rhythm. And I don’t think wingers get enough credit. There are a lot of loose pucks these days and a lot of tie-ups, and when your wingers are on it, makes a big difference when they get to those loose pucks.”

The hope of the hockey team is that by having the 30-year-old Mississauga, Ontario, native winning key draws this season, he can have a drastic impact on the team’s penalty-killing, which was mediocre, at best, a year ago. If Malhotra wins big face-offs and the Canucks can clear the zone, other teams will have to work harder and skate farther to score. And if their opponents aren’t scoring on the power play, that should give the Canucks a better opportunity to win—whether they’re preserving a lead or trying to remain within striking distance when trailing by a goal.

“It’s definitely something that I feel is part of my game and I have to work hard to make sure it stays part of my game,” the left-handed Malhotra said of being tough to beat in the circle. “It’s certainly something I take pride in. And it’s something that good teams now want to have as part of their game. We want to be a puck-possession team, and it all starts with face-offs.”

Malhotra, the seventh selection in the 1998 NHL entry draft after leading his Guelph Storm to the Memorial Cup (where he faced, among others, Roberto Luongo’s Val d’Or Foreurs), was pegged to be a high scorer as a professional. That hasn’t materialized, although he did score a career-best 14 goals last season in San Jose.

But Malhotra, who is married to basketball star Steve Nash’s younger sister, Joann, has always been a big body who could match-up against other teams’ top players. And his combination of size, hockey smarts, and his quick trigger on draws has kept him employed in the best league in the world for a dozen seasons.

Now a face-off specialist, Malhotra knows his role in Vancouver, and he claimed that he is working harder than ever to continue to hold the upper hand on opponents in the circle. Some players suggest it’s impossible to work on draws in practice because the intensity level just isn’t the same as in a game. But Malhotra refuted that notion and said there are some small things that can be worked on between games that lead to big success come crunch time.

“You can work on your timing and on your technique against lefties and against righties. As you get older and you see more and more guys, you start to learn their tendencies and you start to know what to expect. I’ve got it all in my book,” he said, pointing to his mental storage locker. “And it’s the same thing with linesmen: you start to know when linesmen are going to drop the puck and you get to know their timing. There are a lot of things that go into it. It’s speed, it’s power, and it’s timing. I’m just constantly working on those things and making sure I’m staying sharp with it in practice.”

So far this season, Malhotra has been razor sharp in the circle and has chipped in with a couple of assists as well. The hockey club’s hope is that the new Canuck will add offence when he can, but if he makes life difficult on opponents by using his size on the forecheck and continues to allow his team to control the puck off the draw, then Malhotra is contributing in his own way. Some nights, those are the types of efforts that go unnoticed by casual hockey fans, but good teams have guys who do those little things well.

And right now, no one in hockey is having more success in the face-off circle than Malhotra. Anyone who has watched the Canucks in recent years knows they’re a dangerous team when they have the puck. With Malhotra in the fold, it looks like they’ll have the puck a lot more than they have in the past. And, ultimately, the Canucks are counting on that leading to more wins.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/patersonjeff/.

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