- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2021

Like many of the 106 million people who have dealt with the coronavirus worldwide, Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov have a new appreciation for how serious the illness can be.

The pair, who were each placed on the NHL’s coronavirus protocol list Jan. 20, went through the gamut — from the minor annoyances and sheer tedium of isolating at home, away from teammates and friends for days, to suffering symptoms severe enough that Samsonov said he struggled to walk and breathe.

“It’s definitely not fun,” Kuznetsov said, “and it’s not easy days.”

Still, the Capitals star said he wasn’t worried about surviving the potentially deadly illness. 

“No, I’m from Russia,” Kuznetsov said. “There is not a lot that can scare me.”

Kuznetsov and Samsonov, cleared and back on the ice for the first time in nearly three weeks on Monday, are working to shake off the rust.

To get their conditioning back, they rode stationary bikes Sunday. They’ve completed health tests, including heart checks, and both are looking forward to returning to game action. 

The Capitals’ COVID-19 drama is part of a league-wide struggle as the NHL has been forced to reshuffle schedules almost daily as positive tests and close-contact exposures threaten to spiral out of control.

On Saturday, the league moved 27 games in the East Division due to outbreaks on the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils — spikes that began with the Devils and escalated once the two teams played each other twice.

As of Monday, the Sabres had nine players on the protocol list and the Devils had another 19, although the list doesn’t necessarily mean the players listed have tested positive. The Minnesota Wild’s season is temporarily on pause, too, with 11 players on the coronavirus list.

The league has postponed contests for all three squads, including Buffalo’s games against Washington scheduled for Thursday and Saturday.

“Our priority has been and will continue to be to act conservatively with an abundance of caution, understanding that there are many things about the transmission of COVID-19 that are still being discovered,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement last week. “As a result, we won’t hesitate to take additional measures as indicated by what we are learning and as directed by our medical advisers.”

Nearly 100 players have entered the NHL’s coronavirus protocol this season, although Bettman said fewer than half of those players have been confirmed positive cases, and some of those players haven’t exhibited symptoms.

Still, the league rolled out additional preventative measures last week for teams to incorporate.

Clubs have removed the shielding behind the bench to allow for more airflow while players sit next to each other. The league advised players to arrive at arenas no more than 1 hour and 45 minutes ahead of puck drop, meetings should be held virtually, and players should leave “expeditiously” following the final horn.

The NHL also asked teams to use locker room space to spread players out more. And the league is considering adding air cleaners behind the benches with HEPA filters.

“I think we have to do more, whether it is testing or putting in measures that protect us without it disturbing our preparation and the game being played,” Capitals center Lars Eller said last week. “So I think we have to do a little bit more and hopefully the decision-makers together can figure out what those measures are that we have to take.”

Washington played the last few weeks shorthanded after the team was fined $100,000 for breaking coronavirus protocols. 

Samsonov, Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Alex Ovechkin hung out in a hotel room together during the Capitals’ season-opening road trip, and the group entered coronavirus protocols after a positive test.

Orlov and Ovechkin have already returned, but Kuznetsov and Samsonov both exhibited symptoms. The players said they didn’t know if they would be ready to play Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers; they hadn’t been able to train during quarantine and Monday was the first time they skated in nearly three weeks.

A slew of other injuries left the Capitals in a difficult situation and may have been a factor in their three straight losses in regulation after a bright start to the campaign. Winger Jakub Vrana was added to the coronavirus protocols Saturday night, too.

Several key players are nearing return, though, including defenseman Justin Schultz. He took a puck to the face Jan. 28 and suffered tooth damage.

“Obviously, a bunch of teeth are in pretty rough shape,” Schultz said. “Lost a couple and a couple small fractures there, but nothing too serious. It could have been a lot worse, which I’m thankful for.”

Those players may have some more time off to recover after Tuesday’s contest with the Flyers, unless additional schedule changes occur. With the Sabres’ two games against the Capitals postponed, Washington is next slated to play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But before returning to game action, Kuznetsov and Samsonov are glad they’re at least practicing.

“We’re day-to-day, you know, and it’s all about how I’m gonna feel tomorrow,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m just happy I’m alive today, and be able to practice with the team is just a big step for me.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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