TAMPA — As much as the NHL would like to put the coronavirus in the past, the past few weeks have been a reminder that it’s still an issue for the league.
After a Lightning victory in Ottawa on Nov. 6, the Senators had the league’s first major coronavirus issue. Within the week, Ottawa had 10 players in the protocol, had canceled practices to prevent further spread and raided their AHL affiliate’s roster just to have enough bodies to play games. The league Monday postponed three Senators games.
After playing 16:47 against the Lightning on Monday, Islanders forward Josh Bailey landed on the protocol list the next day.
More than half the league’s teams have had at least one player miss games due to the coronavirus. The Lightning, who are fully vaccinated, have dodged that so far.
On opening night last month, commissioner Gary Bettman pointed to the league’s near 100-percent vaccination rate — he said only four players were unvaccinated entering the season — as another example of hockey being the ultimate team sport. The NHL’s protocols for unvaccinated players likely pushed players to become vaccinated. Unvaccinated players face heavy restrictions and lose pay for games missed due to the virus.
The Senators’ outbreak came despite the team being fully vaccinated.
“This is going to happen,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said two days after playing the Senators. “Until COVID runs its course through everybody, I think we’re going to see this sporadically. I think it’s not alarming. Everybody’s vaccinated and … it’s just a reality of the times, and it’s what we have to go through.
“It’s just a reminder that you still have to look after yourselves and where you are and what you’re doing. You have an obligation to do that for the betterment of your team and your job.”
Vaccinated players are tested every 72 hours. Unvaccinated players are tested every day. The league has worked to expedite test results and get more point-of-contact rapid testing done to prevent false positive tests from keeping players out. An initial positive test must be followed by two negatives for a player to be released from the protocol.
While most players with confirmed positives have been asymptomatic, the Senators’ postponements triggered a clause that would allow the league to pull out of allowing players to play in the Olympics in February if the coronavirus has dramatically impacted the NHL schedule. Nearly a dozen Lightning players plan to compete in the Games at Beijing, and Cooper is the coach of Canada’s team.
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Cooper said the opt-out date for the Games is a month ahead of the Feb. 4 start.
“I don’t know what’s going to go on moving forward if there’s more outbreaks or game cancellations,” Cooper said. “But do I think it’s going to be a huge problem? I do not.”
Verifying vaccination cards
With the former live-in chef of Bucs receiver Antonio Brown accusing him of submitting a fake vaccination card to the NFL, how can teams verify that athletes’ cards are real?
The Bucs said they found no irregularities in team personnel’s review of players’ cards. Brown’s agent says he is vaccinated.
Last month the NHL suspended Sharks forward Evander Kane 21 games without pay for submitting a fake card. Every team is different. Lightning players’ vaccinations were given through the team, taking away third-party chain of custody that could make submitting a fake card easier.
Cirelli for Team Canada?
Could Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli be a dark horse for Team Canada for the Olympics?
Canada general manager Doug Armstrong, also GM of the Blues, attended the Lightning’s game in Philadelphia on Thursday and after the game was introduced to Brayden Point, a likely Canada selection, and Cirelli.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who has had a great start to the season — he led the Lightning in goals (nine) and points (18) entering Saturday’s home game against the Devils — has made a strong case for the Canadian roster.
Point has raised his game recently, scoring in each of his previous four outings going into Saturday and shifting to an extra gear with and without the puck.
Cirelli may not get the buzz that Stamkos and Point garner, but his play is solid.
Cirelli, who had four goals and six assists entering Saturday, has performed well in an expanded role on the power play — he mans the bumper spot in front of the net with the first unit — and remains a top penalty killer. His defense in 5-on-5 remains strong, and Cirelli led all Lightning forwards with 16 blocked shots.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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