Injuries to two regular centers have tested the depth of the Carolina Hurricanes center unit so far in 2014.
After the first week, the performance without them has been surprisingly encouraging.
Eric Staal and Riley Nash, who were part of the Hurricanes' four-man group of centers for 78 of the team's final 84 games of 2013, have both been sidelined in recent games.
Nash left Dec. 31's match against the Montreal Canadiens with a lower-body injury and has sat on injured reserve since. The issue came out at an unfortunate time for No. 20, whose play had improved after a rough November.
Staal, meanwhile, departed during the second period of Saturday's game against the New York Islanders, and despite attempting a one-shift return, he was soon ruled out for the remainder of the night. Kirk Muller announced that the 'Canes would be without their captain for five to six days on Sunday afternoon.
The unfortunate combination of ailments has forced the entire 'Canes center unit to step up, and step up they've done.
The 33-year-old Malhotra entered the New Year's Eve contest barely scraping along in the NHL: In his previous 14 games, No. 22 had not registered a single point, had tallied a shot on goal in only four of those matches and played more than 13 minutes merely twice.
But Malhotra was coming off a six-shot effort the previous game against the Maple Leafs, and his play was peaking at the perfect time.
In the four games since, he's been elevated into a premier defensive forward role—his ice time has risen from 9:31 in Toronto to over 13:30 in the past four games, including a season-high 18:46 against the Isles and 17:24 the following night.
Offensively, Malhotra has experienced his most productive outburst in years. He's registered three goals and four points to go along with nine shots on goal.
However, as always, the Ontario native has made his biggest impact in his zone.
He's been used almost exclusively in defensive situations this season—as evidenced by his incredible 77.0 defensive zone start percentage, per Behind the Net—and has put forth a masterful effort in the faceoff circle. Malhotra's 59.6 faceoff winning percentage (294 wins on 493 attempts) ranks fourth in the NHL; his 58.7 percent rate, including a stunning 20-of-27 (74.0 percent) in the defensive zone the last two games, has certainly not hurt that ranking.
Malhotra's promotion up the depth chart has opened opportunities for other players to step into center roles, as well.
The 'Canes actually fielded an all-AHL fourth line against the Nashville Predators, with Brett Sutter, Zach Boychuk and Aaron Palushaj playing together on Sunday.
AHL captain Sutter has played 12:59 and 11:38 in the two games since his recall after failing to break nine minutes total in any of his first 13 NHL appearances of 2013-14. He tallied his first point of the campaign and first goal in four years Saturday on Long Island, the game-winner; he's also won an impeccable seven-of-nine (77.8 percent) in the faceoff department.
Jeff Skinner, Alexander Semin and Tuomo Ruutu, all of whom manned the wing throughout most of 2013, joined forces to create a makeshift first line in Staal's absence—and scored both of Carolina's goals.
Skinner, who had attempted a mere 24 faceoffs through his first 31 games of the campaign, was an admirable five-of-12 (41.7 percent) on faceoffs in Sunday's contest.
If the 'Canes were worried about their depth and flexibility at the crucial center position prior to 2014, such concerns have been convincingly erased for the time being.
Even as Nash and Staal work their respective ways back into the lineup—Nash could be activated from IR as soon as Thursday's rematch with Toronto—the confidence gained by the entire organizational center unit from the past week may prove decidedly useful in the season's second half.
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