VANCOUVER - Now, you see him. Now, you don’t.
Vancouver Canucks centre Manny Malhotra's inspirational comeback was put on hold Tuesday, raising questions about whether he will be able to compete in the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins.
Malhotra, recovering from a career-threatening eye injury suffered in mid-March, was conspicuous by his absence as the Canucks held their last full practice before Wednesday’s series opener.
"He gets monitored every day and today was a day they (medical staff) felt that it would be best to stay away for today," said Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis. "He’ll be back around the team again (Wednesday), we anticipate."
The 31-year-old Mississauga, Ont., native returned to practice recently after undergoing a number of surgical procedures to save his vision, fuelling speculation that he would be ready for game action as the Canucks compete for its first Stanley Cup in their 40-season history.
But Gillis raised doubts about the possibility of him returning in time to suit up against the Boston Bruins.
"He hasn't been cleared to play yet," said Gillis. "He's cleared for some contact."
The general manager's comments contradicted those of Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who said Saturday that Malhotra had been officially cleared to play. Vigneault did not differentiate between practices and games.
But Gillis insisted that Malhotra had not suffered a setback.
"No, it's part of the ongoing plan he's had from the date of the injury," said Gillis.
The veteran centre was injured March 16 as a puck deflected into his eye off the stick of St. Louis Blues defenceman Erik Johnson. Malhotra was not wearing a visor at the time and his brother-in-law Martin Nash, a retired Vancouver Whitecaps soccer player, criticized him on Twitter for going without one.
The Canucks announced shortly after Malhotra went down that he was out for the season. But he quietly launched a comeback quest. He underwent an unspecified number of surgical procedures and stayed around the team while dodging reporters, travelling with his teammates and contributing with video analysis, pep talks and other preparations. Meanwhile, he continued with his off-ice fitness regimen.
According to defenceman Kevin Bieksa, he was the club's "secret weapon" early in the playoffs. Malhotra defied doubts about his future as he first participated in light on-ice workouts, while sporting a full-face shield and a sweatsuit. In the Western Conference finals, he graduated to morning skates before games in full gear and limited participation in drills.
He participated in his first full practice since his injury last Friday and then two more, raising Vigneault's hopes that he would be able to go against the Bruins. But his no-show at Tuesday's final tune-up and his lack of availability to the media afterward — while several other Vancouver players were paraded before reporters in a Rogers Arena concourse area set up for interviews — left many wondering about his status.
"Manny is doing as well as we could have possibly hoped, based on the injury that he had and the procedures that he's gone through," said Gillis.
The Canucks boss said the club has to be "really patient" with Malhotra while keeping his best interests in mind and ensuring that he does not try to do too much too soon.
"When he's cleared to play and play in the NHL, you'll see him with the team again. Until that point, we'll take it day by day and monitor it day by day," said Gillis.