NHL set to resume after 6-day break, eyes new CDC guidance

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Tampa Bay Lightning officials pulled a player out of a meeting because he tested positive for the coronavirus and no one in the room flinched.

As Anthony Cirelli went into the now-familiar COVID-19 protocol, the two-time defending champions practiced with their goaltending coach and an emergency backup in net and prepared to play Montreal on Tuesday night in a Stanley Cup Final rematch without either of their NHL goalies or their coach on hand.

“It’s just the norm,” assistant Derek Lalonde said Monday. “Not trying to downplay it, but I just think it’s a reality of today’s world and today’s NHL.”

Hockey will return Tuesday after the league took an extended holiday break in the hope that virus cases will not continue to disrupt the season. While three more games this week were postponed — bringing the total to 70 this season — the NHL like other leagues will try to power through the latest twist in the pandemic with a possible boost on the way in the form of shorter absences for players and coaches who test positive.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday cut the recommended isolation period from 10 days to five, and other North American professional sports leagues have already moved in that direction. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, “Obviously it will spur a review of the protocol” currently in place, which includes 10 days away for those who contract the virus and experience symptoms.

While many of the cases across hockey have been asymptomatic or mild, the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant has led to a rash of positive COVID-19 test results across the league’s 32 teams. Dozens more players entered virus protocol Monday, with minor leaguers taking their place and taxi squads added to keep the NHL season going amid concerns about the quality of the on-ice product.

“Unfortunate what’s going on around the league with a lot of teams having to deal with COVID issues right now, including ourselves, but I don’t think a lot is going to change moving forward here for the next couple weeks,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We do have to get some games in if we can do it safely, and we can do it where teams have adequate players in the lineup.”

Stamkos and his teammates were preparing to play without reigning playoff MVP goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, five other players and coach Jon Cooper. Montreal will also be without several players for the start of a three-game U.S. trip; back home, Quebec has banned fans and all eyes are on virus restrictions in Canada that could further upend the season for a league with seven teams based north of the border.

The virus continues to play a role on either side of it. Pittsburgh and Washington each added six players to the COVID-19 protocol list, and the Vegas Golden Knights found out they won’t have coach Peter DeBoer behind the bench for their game Tuesday night at Los Angeles.

Washington is set to play again Wednesday against the Nashville Predators, who are dealing with their own virus absences, but the game is scheduled to go on as planned.

“It’s not about who’s out,” said coach John Hynes, whose Predators put captain Roman Josi and two other players on the COVID-19 protocol list. “It’s about the players that are in and making sure we’re physically ready to play and mentally ready to play.”

Not every game will be played on time. Chicago’s game at Winnipeg scheduled for Wednesday and a home-and-home series Wednesday and Friday between Dallas and Colorado are the latest to be postponed because of coronavirus concerns.

The province of Manitoba capped ticketed crowds at 250, so any Winnipeg home games for at least the next two weeks would be played with no fans in attendance. Along with needing to find new dates for the games postponed and more sure to come, the league also could shift games in Canada to later in the season with the goal of making sure there’s a crowd in the stands.

As of now, the Winter Classic between St. Louis and Minnesota is still scheduled to be played in front of a crowd of almost 40,000 at Target Field in Minneapolis on Saturday night in keeping with the league’s New Year’s Day tradition.

“We’re just happy to be playing hockey,” Blues defenseman Justin Faulk said. “I don’t want to be sitting at home doing nothing during this time. I think we should be playing.”

In an effort to do just that, the league brought back “taxi squads,” a feature from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Each team will be able to keep up to six players on the taxi squad and can make more emergency recalls from the minors to make sure there are 18 skaters and two goaltenders available for every game.

“It’s what needed to happen,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You’re going to have a lot of these issues, so that’s one way to take care of it, have enough players around that you can keep playing. I think at the end of the day that’s what we’re trying to do: have a system in place that you can get guys into the lineup quickly.”

The league shut down for the annual Christmas break two days earlier than usual and extended it through Monday given the rapidly growing number COVID-19 cases. Several teams have reported asymptomatic or very mild cases, including 63-year-old Buffalo Sabres coach Don Granato, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015.

“Everybody’s asymptomatic, which is great, and, obviously, they’re testing every day, so if they get a negative test, they come back in,” Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams said, referring to Granato and forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Dylan Cozens and Mark Jankowski, who are in the virus protocol. “It it is hard when even if you’re asymptomatic and you come back and you’ve been back for a while, you need a little time to get yourself back. But, yeah, so far with the way our staff and players have been asymptomatic across the board.”

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.