The Avalanche’s gameday pretty much began with the unsettling news that defenseman Devon Toews not only tested positive for COVID-19, but was symptomatic and would be out of the lineup until after Christmas.
That’s significant for a lot of reasons, but the impact for the Avalanche is that Toews has been having a tremendous season and he’ll miss at least six games.
They play in a league and on a rink, not in isolation on an island.
So as the news filtered in that several other teams were continuing to have COVID-related issues, even leading to the ninth postponed NHL game of the season — Carolina at Minnesota — reality was a pesky reminder.
Hockey ranks about a billionth on the prioritized list of concerns, of course. But even in a league with only one known unvaccinated player — Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi — and what seems to be general adherence to protocols, COVID still is a problem.
With Valeri Nichushkin scoring twice and Cale Makar getting his staggering 13th goal of the season, the Avalanche won their fifth straight later Tuesday night at Ball Arena, beating the New York Rangers 4-2.
Following the Avs’ exciting win over the Panthers Sunday, this again was a reminder — there’s that word again — of how exhilarating interconference play among the league’s powers can be after last season’s limited-crowd standards and intra-divisional schedules. And even having thousands of Rangers fans in the building contributed to the energy.
This recent surge, including Toews’ diagnosis, is troubling for the league and it’s hard to imagine that it ends now. Navigating through a schedule in two nations — including zealous Canada — will be difficult.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar missed a couple of exhibition games himself after testing positive.
After the game Tuesday, he was politely dismissive when I asked him if he had re-emphasized or added anything to what he could tell his players about minimizing COVID risk.
“No,” Bednar said. “Guys are living their lives. They’re being safe, they’re following all the protocols. It is what it is. I’m not getting into COVID stuff with our guys at all. Tell ’em to be safe, avoid crowds. We’re basically playing every night and going home to family, you know? If you’ve got to go get groceries, go get ’em. It is what it is. That’s the way I see it.”
Yet the other issue is that the now-symptomatic Toews was around his teammates as late as Sunday night. (The Avs didn’t practice Monday.) Will it stop at one — at Toews? The roll call of where it hasn’t includes Carolina, Calgary and Boston, and the Islanders and Senators have had temporary shutdowns.
Nathan MacKinnon missed the first two games of the season because of a positive COVID test, had two assists against the Rangers and is back in high gear after returning from an eight-game absence with a lower-body injury. I asked him and Makar about the COVID news and if they had been told anything new to keep in mind.
“Obviously, we want to protect our loved ones,” MacKinnon said. “But we’re healthy, we’re fit, we’re vaccinated. So I heard a lot of the guys on the Flames have symptoms. I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re going to do moving forward. Hopefully we can make these games up quick. We’re playing 30 in 55 (nights) now so I don’t know where we’d make up games if we had to postpone anything. But, yeah, hopefully we can move this along.”
Makar now has 13 goals, and that’s the highest total for a defenseman through 23 since Dave Ellett had 15 at that point for the 1988-89 Winnipeg Jets.
His view on the COVID news?
“Obviously, we still know COVID’s a thing,” he said. “At the end of the day, our team’s vaccinated, we’ve done the work to at least make sure that we’re at least safe if somebody does get it. It’s unfortunate that Tayzer went down, but you obviously want to mitigate those as the season goes on.”
The Avalanche will have an optional Wednesday practice before traveling to Nashville for a Thursday meeting with the Predators. They’ll be hoping everyone who played against the Rangers will be getting on the plane.
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Terry Frei (email@example.com) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here.