VANCOUVER - Grizzled NHL veteran Manny Malhotra was as nervous as a rookie Saturday night.
The defensive centre made his long-awaited return to the Vancouver lineup as the Canucks edged the Boston Bruins 3-2 in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.
"I was excited that I was going to have the chance to play, but it’s probably the most nervous I've been in my entire career," Malhotra said.
It didn't help when the sellout crowd at Rogers Arena erupted with a loud cheer and started waving white towels madly as Malhotra came out to take a faceoff 1:48 into the game. Fans also chanted “Manny! Manny!” as his shift lasted a minute and five seconds, mostly in the Bruins end.
"Right from the warmup, it was kind of sensory overload, just the noise, the crowd into, all the towels waving," Malhotra said. "It's the first time I’ve seen the home crowd that excited in playoffs. I guess I really didn't settle down until my first shift.
"It was obviously a great feeling, the ovation I got the first shift, but maybe it kind of put a little more nerves on me, wanting to do something out there and execute. So once I got out there and won my first draw, I felt a little bit better."
Malhotra eventually settled down enough to win six of seven faceoffs as he logged 7:26 of ice time. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who remained coy about Malhotra’s status before the game, inserted him as part of a bid to get more minutes from the fourth line. Vigneault limited him to specialty situations like faceoffs in the defensive zone.
"It was a real happy moment for our whole group to be able to put Manny in the lineup and to have him play the way he did. … He was good on the ice," Vigneault said. "He created a scoring chance."
With just under five minutes left in the second period, Malhotra was checked by the side of the Bruins net and the puck slid across the goalmouth to linemate Jeff Tambellini, but his shot was blocked by two Boston players' sticks and then hit the side of the net.
"That line played more minutes than throughout the San Jose series and I think obviously more than in the first game against Boston," Vigneault said. "So I'm excited to have him back and I think he's only going to get better as we move forward here."
Tambellini said Malhotra enabled the fourth line to have more puck possession and increase its effectiveness.
"This guy has been the rock of this room from day one," Tambellini said. "It doesn't surprise me that he was able to step and do what he did. He prepared as if he was going to play every game from the minute that he got hurt."
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.
With about 10 minutes to go before the start, the crowd briefly chanted "Manny! Manny!" and then resumed as the Canucks came out of their dressing room and lined up for the national anthems.
Malhotra, a 31-year-old native of Mississauga, Ont., 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 final 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 final. "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."
Malhotra replaced rookie fourth-line centre Cody Hodgson, who was a healthy scratch after skating with spares and minor-league callups Saturday morning.
Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis, who was injured in Game 1, did not dress after missing the team's optional morning skate. Andrew Alberts was inserted into the lineup for the first time since Game 3 of the second round against Nashville.
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 return spelled "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.
Malhotra said battling on faceoffs in practice against Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Maxim Lapierre over the past two weeks helped him as he tries to deal with things like spatial awareness. But he still feels there’s room for improvement when it comes to regaining his timing after the long layoff.
“There’s obviously a ways to go. … A lot of plays I made tonight were just chipping the puck in and chipping the puck out,” said Malhotra. “As we go forward here, I'll become more confident with the puck again, start to try to make more plays, skate with the puck. But I think playing seven minutes in my first game back is a good transition into things.”
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.