Injured Vancouver Canucks centre Manny Malhotra participated in his first practice Friday, but the NHL team still wouldn't confirm that he would return to action in the Stanley Cup final.
But while the team once declared Malhotra's season over, it is now possible, if not likely, that he can return for the fourth and final round of the postseason tournament. Malhotra, who suffered a serious eye injury in mid-March, participated in his first cleared-for-contact practice Friday, an important step in his comeback attempt.
"The doctors need to be comfortable that he is stable, that his eye is stable, and that absolutely no further damage could occur from him participating in playing hockey," general manager Mike Gillis said. "Once we get that, we'll be in a different position...but until we get that, we're not counting on anything."
Malhotra, always in a full face shield, has been practising with his teammates for more than a fortnight, skating in line rushes and doing drills, but wasn't allowed to hit or be hit until Friday.
The Canucks also revealed that Malhotra will no longer have to undergo a surgical procedure to remove lubricating oil from the eye before returning. The recovery period for that surgery is six weeks, and Gillis said that it was no longer a condition of return.
"He won't be playing unless his vision is good enough to play," Gillis said.
Malhotra has been told that the only way he could cause further damage would be a direct hit to the eye from a stick, puck, etc., which a full face shield could prevent.
But that the extra equipment won't be the only adjustment Malhotra has to make. His vision was damaged, so he would have to adapt to a different visual perspective than what he was accustomed to, particularly on faceoffs, where he once excelled.
He has to get in game shape, having been on the sidelines for more than two months. Malhotra has been working on conditioning during practices, and on his own.
If the Canucks and Malhotra are confident that his eye and shape are sufficient enough to attempt a comeback in the final, there is still the matter of where he fits. Maxim Lapierre has done a splendid job of replacing Malhotra as the third-line centre with penalty-killing responsibilities, although the fourth-line job is less secure with rookie Cody Hodgson playing limited minutes in that role.
The Canucks have not made Malhotra available to answer questions on his situation, but are expected to before the Cup final begins Wednesday.
Unlike most injured players who are almost banished from the healthy group, Malhotra has had an active role in Vancouver's playoff run. Captain Henrik Sedin often says that his teammate sees the game like a coach, and Malhotra has attended meetings, watched video, and given input during strategy sessions.
All of that has been constructive, but there is also the inspirational lift that a return could provide for Malhotra's teammates
"He's got a lot of knowledge about other teams...and he's a calming influence with a lot guys," Sedin said. "We're happy to see where he is now, because when it happened, the next day or a few days later when we saw him, we were concerned for his future life, not his hockey.
"To see him on the ice now, and see where he is now, is amazing for us and we're very happy for him."