As COVID-19 upends rosters, Flames prepare to return with health on their side

Calgary's big line has been stopping goals almost as often as it has been scoring them. (CP/file)

Shortly after their second skate in just over two weeks, Darryl Sutter declared his club as healthy as it’s been since training camp.

With the return of Dan Vladar on Monday, all 20 Calgary Flames who tested positive for COVID-19 before Christmas are now back in the swing of things.

Aside from a few days of flu-like symptoms experienced by a portion of the team, the players have come through the team’s shutdown well-rested, energetic and healed from many of the bumps and bruises that accumulated the first two months.

No more impediments.

No excuses.

After going through what the organization did to miss its last seven games, you’d hardly call them the envy of the league.

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But given how things have come together since then, it’s reasonable to wonder if the Flames will have an advantage on most teams as the NHL returns to play.

“I’d say ya,” said Matthew Tkachuk, one of the team’s three rostered players who weren’t sidelined by the Omicron variant. “Most of our guys have (tested positive) so we don’t have to really worry about that too much, whereas other teams are maybe coming in each day and not knowing what can happen with certain guys and might have a week or two off, starting now.

“For us to have a full roster I think it can help us, definitely. It’s more of a mental thing, too.”

As the Flames gain steam with their second of four-straight practices this week, more and more players around the league continue to be added to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list.

On Monday, the league announced the postponement of three more upcoming games, putting further into question whether the Flames will actually fly to Seattle Wednesday for a return to play Thursday.

If they do, it would be a fortuitous start given the extended practice time it affords and the relative weakness of the opponent.

Rested but rusty, the Flames won’t have to suit up with taxi squad players and callups like many of their opponents will, as the Covid damage to the Flames is theoretically behind them.

“I hope so,” said Chris Tanev, who said the extent of the COVID-19 damage to him was a day-and-a-half of flu-like symptoms. “Obviously it’s a very fluid situation going on with the league. Not every team has experienced what we have, so hopefully there are not a lot more cases popping up. We’ve just got to be ready to play.

“I’m sure (the schedule) is going to change over the next week or two.”

Editor’s Note:The COVID-19 situation, in the NHL and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country’s public health website for the latest.

Tkachuk was even more optimistic that the Covid concerns that loomed over his team since Dec. 11 are a thing of the past.

Well, for this variant anyway.

“For our team ya, probably,” said Tkachuk, who had previously tested positive for Covid two summers ago. “But we’re not the only team in the league, obviously. Obviously other teams are having updates every day. It’s happening to a couple other teams. It’s probably the way it’s going to be for the next little bit.”

Sutter isn’t as convinced, going as far as to suggest that because players are double and triple vaccinated, he thinks the league’s re-implementation of taxi squads will mean the virus isn’t “going to affect our league anymore.”

Wishful thinking.

Surely, many teams will be forced to play without regulars, an issue the Flames won’t have to worry about themselves.

“To be honest, the big thing with us is we’re probably healthier than any time since the last exhibition game,” said Sutter, whose team now has Brett Ritchie (concussion) skating again, leaving only Tyler Pitlick out due to injury. “I think the guys look fresh and they’ve got some energy in their practice, which is good.

“I don’t think (any rust) is related to the virus. I don’t think that affected any of us. It’s just the time off. Getting through the next three days you’re looking for good execution and pace of play, the same things you say coming out of training camp.”

Given how well the Flames started this year, there’s plenty of reason to believe they can replicate that success again in their restart.

When last we saw the Flames in action, the club was on a four-game losing streak, capped by a home loss to Boston Dec. 11.

The next day the positive tests started rolling in, eventually sidelining 33 players and staffers.

They’ve endured.

Now they prepare for a return they’re unsure will happen as early as Thursday.

“Very tough,” said Tkachuk when asked how hard it is to have the schedule up in the air. “It’s only been two weeks and a day, but it feels way longer than that, I can tell you that.”

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