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With fours games postponed, Habs' COVID-19 issues a concern across North Division

Getting nearly a week off in Montreal is something millionaire hockey players would normally jump at. Not so in 2021.

Getting nearly a week off in Montreal is something millionaire hockey players would normally jump at.

Not so in 2021.

The Edmonton Oilers were forced to spend plenty of time at the team's hotel and on the practice ice this week when their three-game series against the Canadiens was postponed after two Montreal players were added to the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list.

"A lot of sitting around," Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl said. "A lot of time with the guys."

Edmonton arrived in Montreal on Sunday for games scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Those plans changed drastically when Canadiens forwards Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia were placed into protocol Monday, nixing the series opener and signalling the Canadian-based North Division's first postponement of the truncated season.

The teams' next two games — as well as the Canadiens' matchup with the Ottawa Senators scheduled for Sunday — were also subsequently scrapped and will be made up at a later date.

NHL players and team staff are restricted to airports, hotels and arenas when on the road this season, while life at home is basically a mirror image as the league continues to try and keep the coronavirus at bay. 

"We're lucky we had these practice days," said Edmonton defenceman Adam Larsson, whose team arrived in Toronto on Thursday ahead of a two-game set with the Maple Leafs. "You get out of your room a little bit. Other than that, there's not a whole lot. 

"A little bit of Ping-Pong, a lot of TV shows."

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told reporters Thursday one of the two players in question has a confirmed case of a COVID-19 variant. The decision to postpone was made by medical officials from the league, the NHL Players' Association and the Canadiens.

While outbreaks and positive tests south of the border have impacted a number of NHL teams and forced schedule rejigging, the North had been relatively unscathed through the first two months of the season before the current situation in Montreal.

And it served as another warning to Canada's other six clubs how insidious and serious — even with all the precautions — the virus remains with the variant threat and the country's glacial vaccine rollout.

"It's a huge reminder," Leafs winger Zach Hyman said. "Especially with things in the U.S. opening up more and players over there getting the vaccine, we're in a different boat in Canada. We have to be extra careful. 

"Even here, things are starting to open up, the weather's getting nicer so I'm sure there are temptations to go out. It's even more important to stay on top of things and make sure everybody in our locker room is staying safe and wearing a mask and doing all the things we've been doing."

Vancouver Canucks blue-liner Nate Schmidt said even though COVID-19 hadn't impacted the NHL in Canada nearly as much as the U.S., a shutdown of some kind was likely inevitable.

"It's a little bit of a ghost," he said. "You never know when and where and how you can get it. It's something that we've been very fortunate to not have to deal with a lot up here.

"A lot of teams have had to go through it. It's no different to what we're going through now."

Bergevin said he expects the schedules for every Canadian team to be adjusted as a result of this week's postponements. Montreal is currently slated to play in Ottawa on Tuesday, but the Canadiens' practice facility will remain closed through the weekend.

"Whatever the schedule brings later on, we have to deal with that," Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett said. "It's unfortunate that it happened, but it wasn't something that was unexpected."

Winnipeg Jets forward Andrew Copp said even the most stringent precautions aren't foolproof in the NHL's COVID-19 era.

"The (Canadian) teams have done a pretty good job of not allowing that or doing the best that they can, obviously with a little luck," he said. "But it was bound to happen."

The start time for another game between the Oilers and Canadiens on Feb. 11 at the Bell Centre was pushed back an hour after Edmonton forward Jesse Puljujarvi was placed into protocol, but he was deemed eligible to resume team activities two days later. 

In all, there have been 41 games postponed in the NHL, with many more rescheduled. 

Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said the positive tests are a concern for the health of everyone involved, but also the season at large.

"Whether you're missing players for certain games or games get postponed, and then they're sandwiched into an already condensed and busy schedule, it becomes a competitive situation," he said. "It creates some real challenges. We want to do everything we can to not put ourselves in that situation." 

As for actual games, the Oilers and Leafs will both be rested after Toronto played for just the third time in 11 nights Thursday ahead of Saturday and Monday tilts at Scotiabank Arena with first place in the North on the line.

The Leafs embarrassed the Oilers on home ice in a three-game sweep earlier this month, but Edmonton rebounded by going 7-2-0 over its next nine before arriving in Montreal last weekend. Toronto, meanwhile, is just 3-6-0 over that span and held a two point lead on the Oilers and Winnipeg Jets atop the division heading into Friday's action.

"You obviously want to send a message," said Draisaitl, whose team is 2-5-0 against the Leafs with their final regular-season matchups on deck. "We want to beat them and show them that we're a good team, too." 

And that team, according to Larsson, has become a lot closer this season — including over the past week.

"We've spent a lot of time together," he said. "You're pretty much with the team the whole time on the road. It's been good for us."

The last week wasn't a break the Oilers wanted or really needed, but one they were prepared for in the most unique of campaigns.

"If you'd gone through the year without any interruptions, you would have been grateful," Tippett said. "But you probably would have been surprised. We're just taking it as part of what this season is. It's not a normal year. 

"It's just part of what we have to deal with."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press