After a protracted adjournment as a result of COVID-19, the Maple Leafs hope to ring in the new year on Saturday night with a game against the Ottawa Senators.
Barring a last-minute cancellation, it will be their first game in 18 days and played at Scotiabank Arena without fans. The club’s ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, said late Thursday that it would not allow spectators at hockey games or Raptors’ basketball games for three weeks in the hope that will help blunt the spread of coronavirus.
Ontario reported a record 16,713 cases on Friday triggered mostly by the contagious Omicron variant. The Senators have three players on the NHL’s COVID-19 list while the Maple Leafs, who once had 15, now have just one.
William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin returned to practice for the first time since Dec. 16 shortly after the province revealed the latest numbers. Toronto has had six games postponed.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe, who also became infected, said it was unclear if Nylander, Rielly and Muzzin would be available against Ottawa.
“It was really nice to have them out there but we will have to see how they progress,” Keefe said. “They could be an option, but everybody else has had multiple days to prepare for a game.
“We will just take it one player at a time and see how they feel. Each had had their own circumstances and their own symptoms.”
Defenceman Timothy Liljegren is the lone Toronto player still in COVID-19 quarantine.
Rielly, who has four goals and 26 points in 30 games, said he is happy to rejoin the team.
“I didn’t have any symptoms really but I know everyone reacts differently,” Rielly said. “I am grateful to be back here with the guys and to be on the ice but I honestly don’t know yet about playing [on Saturday.] I am not going to make any call.”
Toronto, 20-8-2 when the NHL began to postpone games, is third in the NHL’s Atlantic Division behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. Ottawa is 9-17-2 and seventh in the division, ahead of only the Montreal Canadiens.
The league has now postponed 89 games as infections have mounted among players and capacity limits have been lowered in Canadian markets. On Friday, the league postponed Ottawa’s home game Monday against Minnesota, Vancouver’s home game Wednesday against the New York Islanders, Edmonton’s home games Saturday against the Islanders, Jan. 12 against Minnesota and Jan. 14 against Vegas, Calgary’s home game Jan. 11 against the Islanders and Jan. 15 against Vegas and Winnipeg’s Jan. 16 home game against Edmonton.
The NHL said the games will be rescheduled for later in the season when restrictions may be eased or lifted.
The Ontario government reduced arena capacities from 50 per cent to 1,000 people on Thursday before MLSE decided not to allow any spectators. There were no crowd restrictions at all when the season began.
“It is going to be different for sure,” Keefe said. “We had gotten comfortable playing in front of a full building. Circumstances have changed and we have to react.
“That is the reality we are dealing with. You have to do your best to make sure the games get played.”
If the game does take place, the Maple Leafs will have a full contingent of forwards for the first time since training camp. Mitch Marner is back after suffering a shoulder injury during a collision with Muzzin at practice on Dec. 8.
Auston Matthews, Marner and Michael Bunting are among the few Toronto players yet to test positive.
“I kept waiting to see if it would pop up and fortunately that didn’t happen,” Bunting said Thursday of his COVID test results. “I try not to worry about it and keep it out of my head. If I let it, it would drive me crazy.”
The Senators have not played since a 4-3 road loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 18. The Maple Leafs’ last game was a 5-1 victory in Edmonton on Dec. 14.
Toronto and Ottawa have met twice this season, with each recording a win.
“We are all excited for Saturday to play a game,” Bunting said. “It has been a long time.”
Nobody will look forward to it more than Rasmus Sandin, a Toronto defenceman who has been sidelined both by injury and COVID-19.
He returned to practice this week for the first time since Dec. 5, when he was struck knee-on-knee by Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk.
“It was unbelievable,” Sandin said on Thursday, when he resumed practice. “I was so excited to step on the ice my whole body was shaking. It is the most fun I have had in a long time.”