The clear cage around Manny Malhotra's face made him resemble a futuristic deep-sea diver. It's a full face shield that protects his injured left eye, and has allowed him to make a miraculous return to the Vancouver Canucks, a team that announced his eye surgeries by saying he was done for the season and postseason. But it also gives off an isolated vibe — ladies and gents, step right up and witness the man in the glass box.
Entering Game 2 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, things had been different for Malhotra than for his teammates. They spent the last several weeks on a run to the championship round; he spent that time getting back in game shape, waiting for doctors to clear him for practice.
They experienced the euphoric environment inside Rogers Arena for playoff games; Malhotra had yet to feel that kinetic exhilaration.
That is, until he stepped on the ice for first time since March 16, when a deflected puck to the eye nearly ended his career; and the fans welcomed him back into the family:
"Coming to the rink, I felt really normal, going through the same game-day routine," said Malhotra after the Canucks' Game 2 win over the Boston Bruins, 3-2, taking a 2-0 series lead. "Again, the nerves kept getting to me. I was telling the guys, right from warmup, it was kind of sensory overload, just the noise, the crowd into it, all the towels waving. It was the first time I've seen a home crowd that excited in playoffs."
They were excited, and Malhotra's return was one of the reasons why.
"I said it this morning. It's a privilege to play in front of fans like this. When you come to Vancouver, to say that the fans here are passionate would be a gross understatement," said Malhotra. "So just to be able to be out there again, to hear them cheering, to hear an ovation like that, it definitely makes you feel like a Canuck. You just feel like a part of this family."
Malhotra took a puck to the eye in a game against the Colorado Avalanche on March 16, and immediately had a pair of surgeries performed by doctors in Vancouver and New York to restore vision in his left eye. He released a statement, talking about his long road to recovery.
The comeback moved quickly. He was skating in full gear again on May 18, and was cleared for practice at the start of the series
Malhotra had been a game-time decision earlier on Saturday, but was informed at the team lunch that he was playing in Game 2, his first taste of playoff action. He had been taking regular shifts with the team's fourth line during the practices before Game 2.
Here's his stat line for the game:
The standout number was in the faceoff circle for Malhotra, where he was 6-1. He said he was able to remain sharp on the draw because of the high quality of the Canucks' centers: Ryan Kesler, Henrik Sedin and Maxim Lapierre.
Here's what his coach, Alain Vigneault, had to say about his effort:
"Yeah, I mean, I'm real happy. 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 did exactly what we all expected. He was real good on face-offs. He was good on the ice. He created a scoring chance. That line played more minutes than throughout the San Jose series and I think obviously more than in the first game against Boston. So I'm excited to have him back and I think he's only going to get better as we move forward here."
How did Malhotra grade himself?
"Obviously a long ways to go," he said. "The first one coming back from any time off is always a tough one. Just things like spatial awareness, knowing how much time you have when you get a puck. A lot of plays I made tonight were just chipping the puck in, chipping the puck out.
"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."
Which of course is an understatement. This is a player that wasn't to play again until October, if even then. This was a player who took a puck to the eye, left a trail of blood on the ice, had people speculating about the possibility of retirement.
Yet there he was in Game 2, in his cage, winning faceoffs like it was March 15, hearing the crowd chant his name in a Stanley Cup Final victory. The long journey back was complete, and worth every arduous step.