VANCOUVER - Manny Malhotra made his long-awaited return to the Vancouver lineup Saturday as the Canucks took on the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Malhotra kept the guessing games on his status going, but his listing in the starting lineup, released about five minutes before game time, ended a week of doubts.
The veteran centre hadn't played since suffering a serious eye injury in mid-March.
"It's gone from day-to-day to a game-time decision," said Malhotra after taking part in his club's optional morning skate.
With about 10 minutes to go before the start, the sellout crowd at Rogers Arena chanted "Manny! Manny!"
Malhotra, a 31-year-old Mississauga, Ont., native, was injured in a game against Colorado on March 16 when a puck hit him in the eye.
Shortly after Malhotra went down, the Canucks announced he was out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs. His loss was considered a major blow after Vancouver signed him as a free agent last summer with the specific goal of helping the club win more faceoffs and reach the Stanley Cup finals after two straight second-round exits.
But Malhotra, a 13-year veteran whose five former clubs had never been to the final, quietly launched a comeback while undergoing an unspecified number of surgical procedures. He also helped the team off the ice, but dodged reporters until he was finally able to participate in a full practice.
"Obviously, it's an incredible position to be in," Malhotra said about his chance to play in the finals after his ordeal. "I think that everybody that's on the ice tonight has dreamed about this at some point or another in their entire career or growing up.
"So I realize the significance of the moment. But, at the same time. … It's just another game day."
Malhotra replaced rookie fourth-line centre Cody Hodgson, who was a healthy scratch after skating with spares and minor-league callups in the morning.
Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis, who was injured in Game 1, did not dress after missing the team's optional morning skate. Andrew Alberts drew into the lineup for the first time since Game 3 of the second round against Nashville.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who remained coy about Malhotra’s status in the earlier hours, inserted him as part of a bid to get more minutes from the fourth line. The coach said the club would ease Malhotra into the lineup and use him on things he's good at, like faceoffs in the defensive zone.
"I'm definitely not going to use him with his linemates that he had before," said Vigneault. "That line has played real well (Raffi) Torres, (Max) Lapierre, and (Jannik Hansen) — and I have no intention of breaking that up."
Malhotra's return was anticipated at the outset of this series, but he was an unexpected no-show at the last full practice and morning skate before Game 1. Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis raised further questions Tuesday when he said Malhotra had been cleared to practise but not play in games.
The GM's comments contradicted earlier statements by Vigneault and Malhotra himself that he had been medically cleared to play in the playoffs.
Canucks captain Henrik said Malhotra's pending returned spelled a "a really big boost."
"Manny's been around this team throughout his injury in the last few weeks and he's been a huge part of our success this year. … We're really happy for him," said Sedin.
Games 3 and 4 go in Boston on Monday and Wednesday.
Notes: Veteran Vancouver defenceman Keith Ballard was a healthy scratch along with rookie defenceman Chris Tanev and winger Tanner Glass.