VANCOUVER - The chances of Manny Malhotra returning to play in the Stanley Cup final have improved now that the Vancouver Canuck centre has been cleared for light contact in practice.
Mike Gillis, the Canucks' general manager, says there's cautious optimism that Malhotra, out since March 16 with a serious eye injury, might appear in the NHL final.
"Based on what we first thought about this injury, it has definitely gone better and has gone well beyond our expectations at this point in time,'' Gillis said Friday.
"If things continue to go really well, we're all cautiously optimistic.''
Malhotra was on the ice with his teammates at Rogers Arena in full gear, wearing a facemask on his helmet. The 30-year-old has been skating with the team since May 12, but previously was not allowed any contact.
Gillis said being allowed to participate in some contact drills is another step in Malhotra's recovery.
"He's been cleared for light contact as of today," he said. "We will see how he progresses through practice today and tomorrow. Then he will be re-evaluated after that.''
The Canucks open the Stanley Cup final Wednesday against the Boston Bruins at Rogers Arena. Game 2 in the best-of-seven series will be Saturday.
Gillis shrugged when asked if Malhotra will play.
"I don't know,'' he said. "I can't answer the question.
"If he left practice today and went to the doctor and didn't feel well, he would be off the ice. So far he is progressing really nicely. We will take it day by day and see how he does.''
The Bruins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 Friday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Friday night.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo said the Canucks expect a physical series against the Bruins.
"They're obviously a well structured team,'' Luongo said. "They play a defensive system. They have some big guys who play physical and bang the body around. ''
The Canucks and Bruins played met once during the regular season with Boston earning a 3-1 win in Vancouver.
Malhotra has undergone several surgeries since being hit in the left eye. The Mississauga, Ont., native was hurt when a pass deflected off the stick of Colorado Avalanche defenceman Erik Johnson into his eye.
The Canucks announced March 21 he was lost for the season.
"The most optimistic scenario has begun to play itself out,'' said Gillis.
"We just have to be patient enough to let that continue to play itself out and not get ahead of ourselves. Not put him in a position where he's at any risk.''
Malhotra was not made available to answer questions from the media.
Rick Bowness, the Canucks' associate coach, said Malhotra will be eased into hitting.
"We will intensify our practices over the next couple of days to get ready for Wednesday night,'' said Bowness. "Manny will be able to participate in all those drills.
"Drills previous to this, he's had to back out of. Now he'll be full throttle and be able to go into those drills.''
Malhotra will need at least one more surgery to stabilize the eye. Gillis said that operation does not need to be done before he plays.
The final decision on whether Malhotra returns or not rests with the medical staff.
"I think the doctors need to be comfortable that he is stable, his eye is stable and that absolutely no further damage could ever occur by him playing hockey,'' said Gillis.
"Once we get that, we'll be in a different position. Until we get that, we are not counting on anything.''
Malhotra is a popular and respected player in the Canuck dressing room. His improving health has added to the excitement the team feels over reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 17 years.
"To see where he is now from the first couple of days after the incident happened, it's remarkable the steps he's taken,'' said captain Henrik Sedin.
"We are just happy to see him out there. We will see where this ends up. For now, it's another step for him.''
Malhotra has been seen around the Canuck dressing room, usually wearing dark glasses. He also has travelled with the club.
Luongo said even with the injury, Malhotra has contributed advice and support to the team.
"The fact he's been getting involved in practices is really uplifting for all the guys in the locker room to see that,'' said Luongo.
Malhotra, a former first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, signed a US$7.5-million, three-year contract as a free agent last summer with the Canucks.
He played an important role in Vancouver winning the Presidents' Trophy for the first time in franchise history for having the best regular-season record in the NHL.
Malhotra centred Vancouver's third line of Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen, a shutdown unit put on the ice to protect leads. Malhotra also killed penalties and usually took important defensive zone faceoffs.
During the season he had 11 goals and 19 assists in 72 games. He was second in the NHL with a 61.7 per cent faceoff percentage when he was hurt.
Vancouver held its first practice Friday since using a 3-2 victory in double overtime Tuesday to eliminate the San Jose Sharks in five games from the Western Conference final.
"You want to work on some systems and plays that we work on all year long,'' said Luongo.
"We want to make sure once the puck drops for Game 1, everybody is on the same page and we know what we are doing, firing on all cylinders.''
Henrik Sedin said the eight-day break between games can be both a blessing and a curse.
"You can't take too much time off,'' he said. "If you're not going on the ice it's going to hurt you coming back.
"There might be pulled groins and stuff like that. It's just a matter of getting out there and getting a feel for your gear and stuff.''
This will be the third time the Canucks have advanced to the Stanley Cup final.
The Canucks lost the 1994 final in seven games to the New York Rangers. In 1982 they lost in four straight to the New York Islanders.
A sense of anticipation is growing in the city as the Canucks hope to become the first Canadian team since the 1993 Montreal Canadians to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada.
Henrik Sedin said the expectations and excitement are not an extra burden.
"It's a hockey crazy province,'' he said with a smile. "We have always said we'd rather play here than anywhere else.
"If we would have played in a big city where no one cared it wouldn't have been as fun.''