Five Pittsburgh players have tested positive during the current road trip
As the Penguins departed for their longest road trip of the season, they did so with a sense of optimism.
Many of the COVID-19 cases had been resolved. Only one player, Jason Zucker, was dealing with a recent injury. With star center Evgeni Malkin’s return imminent, could they finally field a complete lineup — or at least something close to it?
Well, no. Three games into the trip, COVID-19 has changed that narrative.
While Malkin finally made his season debut on Tuesday night in Anaheim, two more players were sidelined. Danton Heinen and Zach Aston-Reese tested positive for the virus on Tuesday morning, bringing the total to five Penguins in the active protocol.
They join forwards Brock McGinn and Bryan Rust and goalie Casey DeSmith in the protocol. Both of those forwards, McGinn and Rust, remain quarantined in their hotel rooms in Dallas after producing positive results during the second leg of a six-game, 12-day road trip. Meanwhile, DeSmith tested positive in Anaheim on Monday.
“It just seems like this is the new normal,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Every day I come into the rink and we’re holding our breath that we can get through those tests in the morning. … It’s that’s just the world that we’re living in right now. Nothing at this point catches us by surprise.”
With the new additions to the protocol, forwards Radim Zohorna and Anthony Angello were promoted from the taxi squad to the active roster. Zohorna skated in Aston-Reese’s place on Teddy Blueger’ left wing to begin the game. Angello appeared on the fourth line, alongside Brian Boyle. Third goalie Louis Domingue was also added to the active roster and backed up starter Tristan Jarry.
COVID-19 has rippled throughout the roster this season with nearly every player contracting the virus at some point. The only players who have not tested positive in-season are forwards Malkin, Zucker and Boyle and defenseman Mark Friedman.
The emergence of the omicron variant has reshaped the conversation, as the new wave has hit the club and made even those who tested positive earlier in the season susceptible to another positive test. Aston-Reese has now tested positive twice. Jeff Carter also has gone through two separate stints in the protocol. He rejoined the team in Dallas after his second bout with the virus.
So when will the Penguins get some players back? Well, based on the revised isolation guidelines, some players who are asymptotic or whose symptoms are resolving will can exit their quarantine after five days. The day a player testes positive is Day 0. The first day they are eligible to return is Day 6.
McGinn, who is asymptomatic and tested positive on Friday, could theoretically exit his isolation on Thursday. Whether he feels ready to play and if he logistically can get to Los Angeles in time to play against the Kings is another question.
Rust, who is experiencing mild symptoms after testing positive on Saturday, will not play on Thursday. It remains to be seen what his status will be for the rest of the trip.
“We’re no different than any other team in the league,” Sullivan said. “We’re all dealing with the same thing. We’re trying to control what we can. We’re trying to embrace the adversity. … It’s going to provide opportunities for other guys to go in the lineup and help us win games.”
Zucker continuing to make progress
On the day that Malkin returned, another Penguins took a step in the right direction. Zucker participated in the optional morning skate in a non-contact capacity. While Zucker’s presence was noteworthy, Sullivan said it’s not the first time the forward has been on the ice as he recovers from a nagging lower-body injury,
“He’s had a number of skates with [skills coach Ty Hennes],” Sullivan said. “He’s going through a rehab process that entails some days on the ice, some days off the ice. But he is making progress. His status hasn’t changed.”
The 29-year-old California native has not appeared in a game since Dec. 19. He took a number of “maintenance” days as he initially attempted to play through a lower-body injury. However, after the holiday break, the club determined he could use some time off the ice and placed him on injured reserve on Dec. 28.
Zucker, who is signed through the 2022-23 season on a deal that carries a $5.5 million average annual value, has recorded four goals and seven assists in 30 games this season.
Jarry continues to shoulder heavy workload
Jarry’s heavy workload will continued on Tuesday, when he started again in net.
This marks his 27th start of the season and 28th appearance in 35 games. He’s on pace for 66 outings. The last time the NHL completed an 82-game season in 2018-19, the most-used goalies were Devan Dubnyk (67 games) and Carey Price (66).
Time will tell if Domingue will get a spot start at some point during this trip. With no back-to-back games on the slate, there’s no obvious time to put him in. However, the team may want to consider lessening Jarry’s workload or seeing what they have in Domingue, especially after DeSmith’s uneven start to the season.
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