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Ottawa Senators defenceman Artem Zub wraps around the net with the puck as Edmonton Oilers centre Kyle Turris chases during the first period in Ottawa on Feb. 9, 2021.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The NHL is adding game-day rapid tests for players, team staff and on-ice officials as part of a series of expanded safety protocols unveiled Thursday in its latest bid to stem potential COVID-19 outbreaks.

Rapid tests will be initially made available to the league’s 24 U.S.-based teams and provide results within a half-hour to augment daily polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing already in place, which is similar to the protocols the NBA introduced this season. PCR tests are considered to be more accurate, but there’s a 12 to 24 hour turnaround on results.

The league says it is working with its seven Canadian-based teams to have a similar rapid-testing system in place based on availability.

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Other expanded safety protocols include having all team meetings conducted virtually, removing the plexiglass surrounding the penalty box area and recommending players not leave their homes except to attend practices, games or for essential activities. The directive also recommends other household members stay at home, and consider using grocery-delivery services.

In addition, teams are asked to provide players and staff with KN95 facemasks, which are considered more effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

The NHL is also launching a player-tracking system to assist in contract tracing, and intends to use genomic sequencing on a case-by-case basis to determine specific strains of the coronavirus when there is a cluster of positive tests.

The added measures were approved by the league and NHL Players’ Association’s medical advisers, and will remain in place until at least the end of the month.

The development comes two days after Vegas Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek tested positive but was not quarantined until after playing the first two periods of a 5-4 win over Anaheim. And it comes on the same day the league delayed the start of Edmonton’s game at Montreal by an hour to provide additional time to complete contact-tracing and test results after Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi was placed on the COVID-19 list.

The Oilers became the first of the league’s seven Canadian team to encounter a virus-related disturbance a little less than a month into the season. But not the last. The Ottawa Senators announced ahead of Thursday night’s game against the host Winnipeg Jets that defenceman Artem Zub would not be in the lineup for “precautionary reasons” after an inconclusive COVID-19 test.

The team says that Zub’s inconclusive test result came back on Thursday after testing negative on Wednesday.

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The NHL has postponed 35 games this season, but the Canadian teams in the North Division have yet to see their schedule interrupted.

Golden Knights forward Mark Stone welcomed the NHL’s decision to add rapid testing.

“I think now with the rapid testing getting in place, [it’s] going to help,” Stone said. “We’re to know more before the games, which is ultimately what we want.”

Eleven of the NHL’s 31 teams are affected, with 54 players on the COVID-19 list, led by the Devils with 18.

There are currently five NHL teams on pause: the Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild and Philadelphia Flyers, though others have also been idled.

The Avalanche practiced for the first time on Thursday, and the Wild were cleared to resume practising Friday after both completed 10-day pauses. The Wild still have 12 players on the COVID list after forward Marcus Foligno was removed on Thursday.

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New Jersey forwards Kyle Palmieri and Pavel Zacha were both added to the list a day after being removed, while Devils rookie Yegor Sharangovich is no longer listed.

The Flyers now have five players on the list, after the additions of Jakub Voracek and Morgan Frost. Also added to the COVID-19 list were Florida’s Anthony Duclair and New York Rangers Filip Chytil.

The NHL upgraded its safety protocols last week, too. It had teams remove glass panels from behind each bench for better air flow, while also spacing players at least six feet apart in their locker rooms. Teams were also told not to show up at arenas until 1 hour 45 minutes before faceoff unless players need pregame treatment or preparation.

Under the latest standards, fans can sit no closer than 25 feet behind the bench or penalty box. Teams would be required to erect a plexiglass or acrylic barrier immediately in front of the first row of fans.

Another added safeguard include closing player lounges in team hotels by no later than midnight.

The league also is recommending players who return after testing positive and have a presumptive immunity to be used as “buffers” when determining travel or locker room seating arrangements. That would mean having a player with a presumptive immunity seated next to one who has not tested positive for COVID-19.

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Stone said the first month of the season has been a learning experience given the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

“I think you’re a little bit naive to think we were going to go through the whole season without one guy testing positive,” Stone said. “I think everybody’s kind of learning as we go.”

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