VANCOUVER -- December 14 was both the last time the Vancouver Canucks played a home game and the first time they put players into COVID-19 protocol with the Omicron variant.
A few things have transpired since then.
As the Canucks practised Thursday for Friday’s home game against the Florida Panthers, starting goalie Thatcher Demko and leading scorer J.T. Miller were in the protocol on-deck circle after turning in positives from morning rapid tests. Later Thursday, they officially entered protocol.
The two stars are the 15th and 16th Canucks to pour into protocol since defenceman Luke Schenn and forward Juho Lammikko entered just over five weeks ago.
Since then, the team played nine straight road games -- between seven postponements -- and somehow went 5-3-1 despite the constant churn of players into and out of protocol, with various quarantine periods complicated by Canadian government guidelines on cross-border travel.
Canucks captain Bo Horvat, key forward Conor Garland and backup goalie Jaroslav Halak remain in the United States after joining protocol during the last road trip, unable to return to Canada within 10 days of their positive tests. But Demko and Miller were fortunate to test positive in B.C., and face quarantines as brief as five days.
The organization, like all of us have the last 22 months, soldiers on.
The Canucks confirmed Thursday the hiring of former New Jersey Devils analyst Rachel Doerrie, 25, for their analytics department, while president Jim Rutherford conducted interviews for the vacant general manager’s position. Candidates Scott Mellanby and Patrik Allvin were reportedly in Vancouver on Thursday.
Coach Bruce Boudreau, meanwhile, delayed morning practice so that minor-league goalie Michael DiPietro could join taxi-squad keeper Spencer Martin on the ice at Rogers Arena.
Martin, a 26-year-old journeyman acquired last summer from the Tampa Bay Lightning for the ageless and dependable “future considerations” (which means he was free), is expected to start a National Hockey League game on Friday for the first time since making three appearances for the Colorado Avalanche five seasons ago.
There is nothing normal about this new normal for the Canucks.
“If there's a light, I wish it would get brighter,” Boudreau said when asked about seeing the end of the Omicron tunnel. “Most of the guys have had it. I think (the NHL stops) testing them, unless you get symptoms, on Feb. 3. . . so hopefully this is it. Hopefully nobody else gets it. A lot of teams have gone through this. Every team has gone through it to some degree, so we have to get through it.”
The Canucks cleared a couple of pretty high hurdles on the last road trip, a five-gamer against elite opponents that ended with wins against the Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators.
But the bar they’ll face without Demko and Halak looks more like a high jump than a hurdle. Maybe it’s the pole vault.
Demko has been not only about the best goalie in the league since November but is easily the most valuable Canuck this season. And without Halak as a safety net, the absences up front of Miller, Horvat and Garland will feel even more acute.
“It's some good players, unbelievable players, that we don't have in the lineup right now,” defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “But at the same time, I think we've been going through that all year. It just seems like we've been getting through it and somebody else steps up, and that's what somebody's going to have to do again tomorrow. Like I said, we don't really know what it's going to look like tomorrow, but just take it one day at the time here and figure out how to beat Florida.”
“We have not had the same lineup twice since I've been here,” Boudreau, hired on Dec. 5 to replace Travis Green, told reporters on Zoom. “I mean, (the absences are) like nothing new. Now you've got, when you look at Horvat, Miller and Garland, three of your top four scorers out. But if you play a really good game and play the right way, then you get the goaltending, you know you've got a chance to win. So that's what our belief is and that's what our hope is.”
Martin has played only seven games for the Canucks’ American Hockey League team in Abbotsford, B.C., where three goalies have shared the crease, but has posted a .921 save rate. He also has the advantage over DiPietro of travelling with the Canucks during the recent road trip as a taxi-squad goalie, so at least has been facing NHL shooters during skates and practices.
Even if there is no announcement Thursday night from the Canucks about Miller and Demko going into COVID protocol, it doesn’t mean the players tested negative on their follow-ups and in the clear. Several of the 14 Canucks who are or have been in protocol go there by testing positive-negative-positive.
The Canucks must plan to play this homestand without Miller and Demko.
The powerful St. Louis Blues visit Rogers Arena on Sunday, followed two days later by the Edmonton Oilers. Then another four-game road trip carries the Canucks into the NHL All-Star Break, Feb. 3-6.
“It's been going on for two years now and I just get tired of answering that question (about COVID absences),” Ekman-Larsson said. “I think the only good part is not a lot of people is having symptoms. But at the same time, I feel like it's around us and you think about it every single day. You try not to, but it's out there. We still battled through it but, yeah, you don't really know what's going to come at you when you wake up in the morning.”