After more than two weeks off, the Devils are just hours from finally returning to the ice – for the most part. Still a handful of players remain on the COVID list including Travis Zajac, who’s been there the longest outside of Mackenzie Blackwood, who hasn’t played in nearly a month (and may well not play tonight either). Fortunately according to teammate Kyle Palmieri – also a confirmed positive – Zajac is feeling better and should be coming off the list soon. As Miles Wood put it, the scariest part was how the virus wiped almost the whole team out at once. Wood, incidentally as one of the few players who somehow avoided the virus confirmed he actually had it before camp, which isn’t a surprise at this point. With the amount of guys that went on the list, you almost had to figure guys who didn’t get it had already either had it or gotten a vaccine somehow.
Also still missing is Nico Hischier, who hasn’t played a game yet this season after a suspected fracture in his leg. According to coach Lindy Ruff, Hischier is on track to play once he gets off the COVID list (hopefully just a quarantine in his case), so that’s good I guess. Even our broadcast team didn’t get off unscathed as Steve Cangialosi revealed on Twitter he’s been dealing with the virus for a couple of weeks and will be unable to broadcast the next few games – to be replaced by Kenny Albert ironically – starting with tonight’s return matchup against the Rangers. With the handful of Devils still missing and recovering from injury or the virus itself we have no real idea what the lineup is going to look like tonight. Considering the Rangers are also missing star forward Artemi Panarin, tonight’s matchup feels more like a second preseason game than a second Opening Night.
Maybe that’s why I’m still finding it hard to get excited for Opening Night 2.0, at least in part due to the fact the next few games we’ll still be getting the rust off and returning to form – if that even happens this year. Even world-class athletes have been affected by COVID for far longer than they had the virus for. Look no further than across the river where a slow start from the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad can be directly attributed to his own bout with the virus, right smack before camp.
There’s also a little bit of resignation that the games seem less important right now, both with what’s going on in the country and on a more direct level as a fan of this team after you had so many players and team members afflicted with the virus and still fighting it. As a sports fan, I was fortunate to avoid having to deal with this for the Mets and Jets, as both teams had minimal cases in their seasons, whatever their issues were between the lines at least I didn’t have to be concerned over players, broadcasters or 60+ year old coaches getting ill.
With the Devils the virus clearly hit with full force, and Zajac’s long stay on the list had me a bit more worried until Palmieri said he was at least on the other side of things. Most of the players thankfully seem to have had mild-ish symptoms, although there’s always two levels of concern – the immediate concern while they have the virus and the most distant one of how this affects them (and everyone else) long-term, which there’s no easy answer for. If you want to look at a silver lining, it’s at least highly unlikely the Devils will have to worry about a second outbreak given the number of players who have had cases during this one including Blackwood, Palmieri, Zajac and Damon Severson among others.
Apart from healthwise, the long delay also affects the schedule in a major way with games being pushed back and crammed in. It’s unavoidable quite frankly, there’s no perfect solution. Just cancel games and go on point percentage? That’s a yucky situation. Extend the season longer? The NHL claims they don’t want to do that in part of the Olympics (which may well be cancelled anyway) and it’s hard to do that if five or six teams have to make up games while the others just sit at home for days or weeks and wait anyway.
Get ready for a TV routine of a lot of Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday games assuming we don’t get games canceled again due to another outbreak here or elsewhere in the Metro plus division.
As far as tonight’s game itself, who knows what to expect from either team? If Buffalo’s game with the Islanders yesterday – after they missed about as much time as we did – is any indication it likely won’t be pretty. Of course we’re not playing the Islanders but tonight’s game will still be a challenge. I do like this response from Ruff to the on-ice challenge ahead which I’ll end this blog with: