The Islanders can serve as a warning to nearly a third of the league.
It’s not so easy to get back once COVID-19 throws you off course.
Yes, the Islanders were forced to play four games with a roster in the midst of being taken down by the invisible enemy. That hardship has not befallen the Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Flames, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Avalanche, Panthers, Predators or Bruins — at least not really, though the Bruins were forced to play minus seven players in a loss to the Islanders last Thursday.
But that was only one of the problems the Islanders faced.
Even once they started getting players back, it took some time before they were quite the same. It’s only within the last week or two that the Islanders have started to put together some momentum — possibly too late for it to mean much in the end.
“Guys coming back, I think it throws a little bit of rhythm off the guys coming back, and I can only talk from our guys,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “A guy like Casey [Cizikas] for instance, who maybe had it a little harder than someone else, the first game back, he didn’t have the stamina. [He] sort of hit the wall a little bit earlier than he even expected.
“I just think it’s like anything else. It runs you down a little bit, and then you try to come back, try to play at that level, it takes a few games to get back, for sure. It may not look like that on the ice, but the sharpness, the last 5 percent for a player or 10 percent of a player, that takes a while to get back.”
The timeline, of course, can also depend on how bad a player’s symptoms are. Andy Greene compared his return to the same thing he’d experience after a typical All-Star break. “I was pretty fortunate,” he said. “I didn’t have any issues, really.”
Trotz, who said following Sunday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Vegas that he thinks teams should continue playing if possible, noted that the effects of COVID can also depend on which position group gets hit. The Islanders played at one point without five of the six defensemen who were in the lineup on opening night.
“I think of Nashville, they had all their forwards get it, and their D were pretty well there,” Trotz said. “So from a standpoint of competitiveness, I think having your D corps and your goaltenders, those two primary, you can sort of win games with I’ll say lesser forwards, lesser-quality forwards. But it’s hard to do with the D.”
The Islanders already faced issues in starting the season with 13 straight road games. A COVID outbreak upon their return home accelerated their tailspin, leaving them in last place with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
It’s hard to imagine another team having a worse set of circumstances surrounding an outbreak, and thus it’s hard to imagine another team being affected as badly as the Islanders. The NHL is quicker to postpone games now, perhaps having learned from the Isles’ situation, and the scheduled holiday break will alleviate some pain.
In a cruel bit of irony, the timing of all this also stands to hurt the Islanders, whose scheduled game on Monday evening against the Canadiens was postponed.
“I don’t think we need a break or anything,” Anthony Beauvillier said. “We’ve played some good hockey lately.”
The Isles do get one game before the holiday break, on Thursday against the Capitals. But they would’ve rather had two.
“Would we like to have played today? Absolutely,” Trotz said. “I thought we played really well [Sunday] night.”
Matt Martin and Robin Salo were held out of Monday’s practice after entering COVID-19 protocols Sunday.
Ryan Pulock still hasn’t been on the ice, and, per Trotz, there’s not yet an exact timeline for when that will happen. He was originally supposed to miss four to six weeks after getting hurt Nov. 15.