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Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov enters COVID protocol

The star forward just returned this month after being sidelined for nearly three months with a lower-body injury.
Lightning star forward Nikita Kucherov entered protocol on Tuesday, the team announced, and will miss the next two games.
Lightning star forward Nikita Kucherov entered protocol on Tuesday, the team announced, and will miss the next two games. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 25|Updated Jan. 25

TAMPA — Just when it appeared the Lightning had moved past their COVID issues, one of their top players is entering protocol.

Forward Nikita Kucherov will miss at least the next five days, ruling him out for the Lightning’s next two games — home contests against the Devils on Thursday and Golden Knights on Saturday.

After missing nearly three months with a lower-body injury that required surgery, Kucherov returned on Jan 6. He had four goals and nine assists since coming back and points in six of his eight games — all multi-point games — while averaging 19:41 of ice time. The Lightning are 6-2-0 since his return.

The team went through a three-week stretch starting Dec. 21 in which nine players and three coaches entered COVID protocol. Kucherov is the first member of the organization to enter protocol in two weeks, since Ross Colton was activated from the COVID list on Jan. 11.

Following Tuesday’s practice, head coach Jon Cooper said he isn’t worried that the team will be impacted by the virus as it was before. Unlike last time, the schedule works in its favor. This week opens a stretch in which the Lightning play just eight games over five weeks.

“I’m not sure what the numbers are of how many players have had it or not. It’s just become kind of the norm, sadly,” Cooper said. “So, guys get it, you’re out probably five days and then you come back. It’s unfortunate. If somebody is going to pick it up, you kind of hope they get it during our little bit of a break.

“We’ve gone through this, all the other teams have gone through it. Hopefully, it’s not something that starts taking guys down again. But we’ve just got to move on and know that this is probably not over yet.”

In the middle of that stretch, the league loosened its COVID protocols, reducing quarantine time from 10 to five days in accordance with new CDC guidelines. After five days in protocol, players whose symptoms are resolved can exit protocol with two negative tests or a positive result if their CT value is above 30.

CT value is a number that shows how much or how little virus is in the system. A higher CT number after five days would indicate the player is no longer infectious. Once players exit protocol, they no longer undergo testing for 90 days.

The Lightning are a fully vaccinated team, and several players received booster shots when they were made available earlier this season.

The Lightning practiced without Kucherov on Tuesday. Ondrej Palat, who missed the past five games with a lower-body injury, filled Kucherov’s power-play spot along the halfwall. With Palat back, Anthony Cirelli remained on the top line, along with center Brayden Point.

Because of mass postponements due to COVID, the league pulled NHL players out of next month’s Olympics in order to reschedule games over the three-week stretch initially set as the Olympic break. The Lightning had to make up just three postponed games, all of which were rescheduled for February.

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While defenseman Jan Rutta returned to practice Tuesday, Cooper said he didn’t expect defensemen Erik Cernak or Zach Bogosian to be available for the three games before the All-Star break the first weekend in February. They will be re-evaluated after that.

Palat, who was dealing with a physical issue two weeks before he was sidelined, said the upcoming stretch will be welcome for players to get healthy for the stretch run. The Lightning end the regular season with 31 games in 61 days in March and April.

“I think it’s a good thing for the whole team,” Palat said. “Just take a break, relax, heal up a little bit, because the last two months of the season are crazy. There’s so many games, so we’re going to need that whole energy. We’re going to need everybody to be in top shape for those two months.”

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