Since signing a professional tryout contract with the Checkers on Oct. 3, the eve of the team’s regular-season opener, Malhotra has done everything he can to integrate himself into the team, perhaps more than expected for someone whose stay may end up being quite short. From sacrificing his body to block shots to sticking up for Brendan Woods after an illegal hit on Sunday, he’s been doing the same things that allowed him to hold a regular NHL job ever since the 2001-02 season, when most of his current teammates were between 8 and 12 years old.
For a 33-year-old that had not played an AHL game in 12 years until joining the Checkers, that’s truly saying something.
“He wants to play and he wants to help us win,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “The way he pushes guys in practice, he’s a true pro.”
“For me, the best part of the game is being a part of something,” said Malhotra, who, to Daniels’ point, stayed out late after Wednesday’s practice to work on faceoffs with fellow centers Sean Dolan and Brody Sutter. “It’s so much fun to be around the guys every day, going out for dinner and being part of a team. It’s not like you can put your gear on, go out there and then go home.”
The incident from the Checkers’ last game, in which Malhotra picked up 17 total penalty minutes for instigating a fight against Raphael Bussieres following the Iowa forward’s hit from behind that injured Woods, was a testament to that. Malhotra, in the AHL to prove that he is healthy enough to resume playing at the highest level following an eye injury, had known Woods, a rookie forward, for all of two weeks at the time.
“It was awesome,” said Woods, who missed the following day’s practice as a precaution but escaped any serious harm. “It shows that he’s on your side and willing to do whatever it takes for a teammate.”
“It tells you the type of guy he is and the type of character he has,” said Daniels. “No matter where he’s playing or who he’s playing with, he’ll do that for his teammates.”
Not coincidentally, Malhotra’s previous fight came as a result of a similar incident. While playing for the San Jose Sharks on March 13, 2010, he fought Florida’s Jason Garrison after Garrison boarded teammate Joe Pavelski. Like last weekend, he also picked up an instigator penalty at the time. Before that, it happened on Feb. 11, 2007, when he fought Chicago’s Troy Brouwer while playing for Columbus. The details were exactly the same: boarding call against teammate, instigator penalty for fighting.
It’s not as though Malhotra fights that often, either. Including Sunday, he’s done it just 10 times since the 2001-02 season, which was as far back as detailed score sheets could be found online.
“When the situation calls for it, it’s something I’m willing to do,” said Malhotra. “I felt (Woods) was in a vulnerable position, and we have to make sure as players that we can’t accept that type of play.”
Fisticuffs aside, Malhotra said that he’s starting to get back into game rhythm. After missing the second half of last season when the Vancouver Canucks put him on injured reserve and not attending a training camp this season, all parties understood that it probably wouldn’t happen right away.
“Obviously the results (two losses) weren’t there on Saturday and Sunday, but it’s been good to get game time in pressure situations and be out there when you’re tired,” he said. “Those are things you can’t replicate in practice.”
Like the rest of the Checkers, he’s excited about an otherwise perverse portion of the upcoming schedule that contains six road games in nine days, with travel involved after each. It will be something of a harsh reintroduction to AHL life and the concept of playing three games in three nights, something he remembers doing with the Hartford Wolf Pack several years prior.
“Your ability to play three in three or six in nine is an important part of the game that’s sometimes overlooked,” said Malhotra. “Part of being a pro is that you have to be able to bring it every night.”
That’s part of what he’s teaching the younger players on the team, who are more than willing to listen.
“He’s a leader, and it’s almost like having a third coach out there,” said Woods. “He’s been where we all want to be - in the National League.”
It’s something Malhotra still wants as well. Given the limited amount of time to showcase himself to this point – the Checkers have played fewer games than most AHL teams – the upcoming schedule could go a long way towards demonstrating that he’s still able to contribute to an NHL team, wherever that might be. Though he’s technically playing within the Carolina Hurricanes’ system, he’s free to sign elsewhere should he receive an offer worth taking.
Until then, he’s already demonstrated that he still has the other qualities that have made him a sought-after commodity over the years, with five NHL teams employing him at one time or another.
“He’s been outstanding since day one,” said Daniels.