As COVID concerns mount around NHL, Red Wings try to move forward

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit  The Red Wings were supposed practice Sunday, prepare for rematch against an exciting Colorado Avalanche team Monday, then get ready for one more game before the NHL's holiday break.

COVID-19 had other plans, and nobody knows what to expect in the coming days.

The Avalanche were ravaged by the virus late last week, forcing a postponement of Monday's game

Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, second from left, celebrates with center Kyle Criscuolo (42), right wing Riley Barber (26) and defenseman Gustav Lindstrom (28) after completing a hat trick against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night.

On Saturday, the Wings had four players and two coaches — including head coach Jeff Blashill — placed on the protocol list. There are now six Wings players on the list, unavailable to play.

The Wings have one more game, Thursday in Minnesota, before the three-day holiday break.

Seven teams (Calgary, Boston, Florida, Nashville, Toronto, Nashville, Vancouver) saw their seasons paused over the weekend.  Many more, including the Wings, are close to reaching that point.

"It’s difficult right now," said Dylan Larkin, the Wings' captain, who bolstered the spirits of his team and Wings' fans Saturday by scoring three goals in a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils. "You see guys go down, and the world (in general) right now with the spike, it’s hard. You have to be a great professional and come ready to play and really be dialed in to nutrition and doing everything possible to stay safe.

"It’s very difficult and it really seems that there’s no way to stop it."

Larkin was pulled from a game against Dallas this season Nov. 16 after being tested, only to be told the next day the test was "false positive."

The testing process itself can be stressful.

"I was afraid of it and it was hard, mentally it was hard on myself and a lot of guys," Larkin said. "Now it’s been a few years and you have to focus on the now and present and be ready for whatever happens. If you get it there’s no one to blame and you just deal with it and come back whenever you can.

"You have to have a positive outlook and be in the present and be ready to play."

Blashill, assistant coach Alex Tanguay, and players Filip Zadina, Alex Nedeljkovic, Givani Smith, Carter Rowney, Michael Rasmussen and Robby Fabbri are currently on the protocol list.

The Wings recalled forwards Riley Barber, Taro Hirose and Kyle Criscuolo from Grand Rapids on Saturday, along with Griffins head coach Ben Simon (who ran the bench Saturday against New Jersey) and assistant Todd Krygier.

The Wings were depleted, the Devils were equally decimated. But it was the Wings who found a way to earn the two points in the standings.

“It was a good night, a good team win,” Larkin said. “We scored when we needed to and Greisser (goaltender Thomas Greiss) had a great start for us. That was a huge win for our hockey team. I give credit to the guys who came from Grand Rapids.

"It feels pretty good in the room in a pretty tough time right now.”

The Wings have been forced to dig deep into their organization and recall Griffins, who have solidified the lineup.

Chances are, they'll continue to be asked to do so in the days and weeks ahead.

“As long as we’re playing, we’ve got to figure out a way to win games," general manager Steve Yzerman said Saturday. "Some guys are getting a great opportunity to play, whether it’s Thomas Greiss or Riley Barber or Taro Hirose, I’m not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. If we have enough players and it’s deemed safe enough, and I believe it is, we’ll keep playing.”

Yzerman said players have been agreeable to whatever asked of them, in terms of testing, and ultimately want to continue to play the scheduled games.

There have been reports the NHL could temporarily pause the regular season leading into, or out of, the three-day break (Dec. 24-26). The NHL announced Sunday it would postpone and reschedule travel between Canadian-based and US-based teams through Dec. 23.

Including Sunday's game, there were 42 games remaining until the start of the holiday break. Twenty-six of those have now been postponed, which will create minor headaches in the weeks ahead trying to insert them onto few available dates the rest of the season (although not going to the Olympics in February could somewhat alleviate that problem).

The NHL and players association in a joint announcement said a decision on the Olympics could come in a matter of days.

The NHL is deciding on whether games should be postponed on the question of health.

“They’re trying to be responsible, taking the integrity of each game into account as well," Yzerman said. "The reality is we want to play these games, and you weigh off playing them now with a depleted roster versus packing these games in towards the end of the schedule. Every team affected has done everything they can to keep playing, and I’m OK with that.”

Making his point

During Saturday's game. Criscuolo, 29, earned his first NHL point in 11 career games (nine with Buffalo in 2017-18, two with the Wings last week), while helping set up Larkin's third goal in Saturday's game.

“I’m going to pass that one to him,” said Larkin, of the third-goal puck. “That’s a big deal for him. And I couldn’t be happier for ‘Cris.’ He plays the right way. He’s one of those guys that stepped in, won a lot of battles, won a lot of faceoffs.

“I’m not surprised that he got the puck to me there, and I was able to go down (to score). So, he deserves it.”

Twitter: @tkulfan