Jake Muzzin and Kyle Clifford became buddies as teammates over seven seasons with the Los Angeles Kings. They are neighbours, and their wives are close, too.
So it was especially difficult for Clifford to see his friend and Maple Leafs teammate unable to get up off the ice on Tuesday night after an awkward collision with a Columbus player.
Muzzin was knocked down behind his net by Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Blue Jackets, and then banged his head against the knee of Oliver Bjorkstrand, another opposing player. He tried to stand, was unable and laid down on his back and waited for help.
“It is the first time I have ever seen him not get up,” Clifford said Wednesday, a day off in between games in the NHL playoff qualifying series. “[It was] a scary moment. But he is a mentally strong guy and a big, tough kid. We’re just hoping for a speedy recovery.”
After the incident, a trainer ran out onto the ice and supported Muzzin’s neck with his hands. The 31-year-old defenceman was soon surrounded by medical staff as players on both teams watched in eerie silence. Eventually, a backboard was slid beneath him and he was wheeled off to an ambulance on a stretcher with an apparent neck injury.
In the hospital, Muzzin underwent tests and was released a few hours later. He returned to the team’s hotel, but will miss the rest of the best-of-five play-in round against Columbus while he is placed in quarantine as per the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.
Twelve teams from the Eastern Conference are being sequestered in hotels in a safe zone in Toronto to protect them from being infected with the novel coronavirus. All games are being played at Scotiabank Arena. A dozen Western teams are similarly being kept under wraps in Edmonton with games played at Rogers Place.
The injury occurred within the final two minutes of the Leafs’ 3-0 victory. Each team now has won once, with games still to be played on Thursday and Friday night. If a fifth game is necessary, it will be on Sunday.
Tuesday’s outcome was critical for Toronto because it lost the opening game against the Blue Jackets last Sunday. Teams that lose the first two games in a five-game series have gone on to win only one time in NHL history. Heading into this postseason, 56 five-game series had been played.
Any celebration was muted by Muzzin’s injury. The team still has not provided details of his diagnosis or prognosis.
Safety restrictions related to COVID-19 prevented any of his teammates from going to the hospital to see him late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas accompanied him, though, and provided the team with hourly updates on his condition.
“It was a really difficult situation,” Clifford said. “Everyone wanted to be at his side, but the process is different this year. We know he is out of the hospital and doing much better.”
With Muzzin unable to play, head coach Sheldon Keefe will be forced to shuffle his defensive lines. He said Martin Marincin will fill in at one spot, and that he is weighing adding a seventh defender, most likely Rasmus Sandin. Marincin filled in for Muzzin previously this season when he was out with foot and hand injuries.
“[Muzzin] is a huge part of our team and a huge part of our back end,” Morgan Rielly, a fellow defenceman, said during a video call on Wednesday. “He really offers a lot, but this is an opportunity for guys to step up and take more responsibility.
“You can’t expect them to replace Jake, but they can rise to the occasion.”
After being shut out in the first game on Sunday, the Leafs got goals in Game 2 from Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Rielly.
Keefe is disappointed that Muzzin will be unavailable, but believes his team can soldier on in his absence. Toronto went 7-5-4 while he was injured during the regular season.
“Every single player is valuable and certainly Jake is among the most valuable and important people on our team,” Keefe said. “But I also believe that everybody’s replaceable. We’re going to have guys come in and we’re going to step up.”
Muzzin’s injury was top of mind with Columbus players as well.
Before he answered a question during an online news conference on Wednesday, Zach Werenski of the Blue Jackets wished him well.
“My thoughts and prayers are with him,” Werenski said. “It was tough to see. No hockey is as important as somebody’s health. We are thinking of him.”