TAMPA — One thing that has become evident about the NHL in 2021 is that the regular-season schedule is subject to change.
It has already happened, and it’s affecting the Lightning in more ways than one. After Friday night’s game against the Blackhawks, they are now scheduled to have a five-day break between games because of a coronavirus outbreak that forced the Stars to postpone the start of their season.
As a result, Lightning home games against the Stars that were scheduled for Sunday and Tuesday were postponed until May 4 and 10. The game originally scheduled for May 4 at Amalie Arena against the Panthers was moved up to March 16.
So, two games into its season, Tampa Bay will have a lengthy break from game action. Its next scheduled game is Thursday at Columbus.
Add in an unanticipated development Saturday, Lightning backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney landed on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list, a move that doesn’t necessarily mean he tested positive but certainly gives heightened alert. The Lightning were already set to take Saturday off, but they are now taking Sunday off as well out of an abundance of caution because they can. They are scheduled to return to the ice Monday.
As for the break, that’s okay with coach Jon Cooper, who figures that if his team was going to inherit more practice time, better now than later, especially because training camp was shorter than usual and there were no preseason games.
“If there was going to be some timing in it, this is probably a decent time,” Cooper said. “We get to play a couple games. It’s almost like a training camp. You got to start, you play an opponent a couple times, and then you get a couple days to practice and kind of iron things out before you go on the road.
“So, it’s not ideal for your schedule to change, by any means, but if it’s going to happen right now and give us a little bit more time to kind of iron out some of the kinks, I don’t mind it.”
On Jan. 8, six Stars players and two staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. Dallas’ facility was closed, players began to self-isolate, and the team conducted contact tracing. The Stars didn’t practice for four days and were without 15 players when they returned to the ice Tuesday.
That session included seven players who spent most of last season in the AHL, three in juniors and two in college.
For the Lightning, this break is a double-edged sword. Players want to get into the rhythm of a season quickly, but practice is valuable, too.
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“You can look at it both ways,” forward Alex Killorn said. “You always want to get practices in. I think you gain a lot from practices, but you probably gain a little bit more from game-type situations. And those games are going to get put in at some point in the season. … But in saying that, we have to use this to our advantage.”
All 31 teams must prepare for their schedules to be turned upside down. The league said Tuesday that among 12,000 coronavirus tests given around the league since Dec. 30, 27 players on nine teams had tested positive, 17 of them on the Stars.
Because this year’s schedule is made up mostly of series of two or three games against the same team, teams could go days without playing a game and then have games bunched up later in the season with rescheduling. With the May 4 Panthers game moved to March 16, the Lightning are now scheduled to play three games against three opponents over four days.
Cooper said teams “just have to make the most of it.”
“I think that’s going to happen during the year, where you’re going to play a bunch of games,” Cooper said. “And then there’s probably going to be gaps and practice times in case games have to be moved.
“Fortunately, while it’s not fortunate — let’s be honest, we want to play Dallas, we want the schedule to go off without a hitch — but if there was a time that (something like this happened), it’s probably good that it’s happening early so we do get a little bit more practice time, get your systems in place.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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