Manny Malhotra

Vancouver Canucks officially confirm Manny Malhotra is cleared to play, listed as day-to-day

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In almost every playoff game, a player’s individual toughness emerges to a startling degree. Just look at Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos shaking off a puck to the face as an example that even the “pretty boys” fight through jarring pain.

Even with high expectations for their tolerance to pain, it’s still difficult to get jaded when hockey players keep topping themselves. Rumors were already circulating that Vancouver Canucks center Manny Malhotra was pushing toward a possible playoff comeback, but the team announced that he has officially been cleared to play. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said that Malhotra is day-to-day and would not discuss his lineup for Game 1 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. In other words, a Game 1 return isn’t guaranteed, but it remains a tantalizing possibility.

No doubt about it, Malhotra’s comeback would be one of the most unlikely in recent hockey history. There were many people who thought that Malhotra’s career – not just his regular season and playoffs – would end after taking a puck to the eye that required two surgeries.

Who knows how close Malhotra could be to the player he was during the 2010-11 season, but the two-way center could be a great asset for Vancouver in what should be a tight defensive series. He was actually my mid-season pick for the Frank Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward, a stance that probably left me alone among hockey writers. Still, when you look at Kent Wilson’s breakdown of Malhotra’s importance to the Canucks, it shows just how strong a player he really is/was.

One of the reasons Malhotra is so effective in his “defensive only” role is his incredible ability to win draws. Most of the time I consider face-off skill to be rather unimportant since most players are +/- 50% on the dot. Malhotra, though, is an extreme outlier. This season he finished with a 61.7% win rate, trailing only New Jersey’s David Steckel (62.3%) by that measure. As a result, Malhotra won the second most defensive zone draws amongst centers this season with 296 and he likely only trailed the leader (Steve Ott) because he missed the final 10 games of the year. Malhotra’s win rate in the defensive zone was even higher, a mind-boggling 63.5% at even strength. This is notable because as Gabriel Desjardins has noted in the past, losing a defensive zone draw can spike shots and chances against in the immediate aftermath. As Gabe says “it’s as though you gave the other team a 10-15 second power-play. For several seconds, the rate of shots allowed is as high as it is on a 5-on-3.”

This issue is especially pertinent in one goal games and, obviously, when killing penalties. Naturally, Malhotra also figured prominently on the Canucks penalty kill this season, averaging a team high 2:45 a game a man down. He won the second most draws on the club (136) on the PK behind only Ryan Kesler (138), again primarily because Kesler played the whole season and Malhotra didn’t.

The effect of Malhotra’s absence ripples across the Canucks line-up. It means guys like Ryan Kesler and Maxim Lapierre are forced into more defensively oriented positions at even strength. It means less defensive zone face-off wins in general and it lowers everyone elses zone start ratio across the board.

When you look at the success of strong puck possession teams like the Detroit Red Wings, it’s no coincidence that their systems operate more smoothly when they dominate in the faceoff circle. Malhotra is the kind of player who quietly makes the Canucks’ system work.

Since Rod Brind’amour retired, Malhotra and a few other players (such as Jarret Stoll) are among the truly “elite” guys when it comes to winning key draws. If Malhotra is reasonably healthy, he makes an already formidable Canucks team that much deeper down the middle. We’ll keep you updated if Vigneault reveals lineup information closer to the first puck drop on Wednesday.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.