The NHL finally had to step in. The Islanders’ COVID-19 outbreak just was not being contained as hoped.
Still, the league’s announcement on Saturday that at least the next two Islanders games have been postponed may have come at least two games too late.
Casey Cizikas on Saturday became the eighth Islander to test positive, and that became the tipping point to call off Sunday’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and Tuesday’s road match against the Flyers.
With Josh Bailey, the first Islander to test positive on Nov. 16, not likely to be ready by Sunday, that would have left the Islanders with at least eight players unavailable because of COVID-19.
Before Cizikas, Zdeno Chara was the last Islander to test positive on Tuesday. There was optimism among the NHL’s doctors that that’s where the spread would end.
Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello also announced on Saturday that three non-playing members of the organization have tested positive. Lamoriello chose not to identify them, other than to say he had not tested positive.
What is known is that Bailey, Chara, Anders Lee, Kieffer Bellows, Ross Johnston, Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Cizikas have tested positive.
The last-place Islanders, who have lost eight straight and are 0-5-0 since Bailey tested positive, now need three straight days of no additional positives within the organization to resume team activities.
It’s certainly a fair argument that perhaps this many members of the organization would not have tested positive if the team’s facility had been shut down several days earlier.
Really, what is the difference between having eight players unavailable for Sunday’s game and seven players being unable to play in either Friday’s 1-0 loss to the Penguins or Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Rangers because of COVID-19?
Lamoriello, in his teleconference on Saturday, insisted he never asked the NHL to postpone games, nor is he frustrated about the situation.
He said earlier in the week that he did not know what the NHL’s threshold for postponing games might be and, on Saturday, would not comment when asked if there should be a set threshold.
While Lamoriello may not have asked the league to postpone games, the sentiment within the organization certainly leaned that way much sooner than Saturday instead of having the Islanders continue to play with a hybrid NHL/AHL roster.
"I have to practice what I preach," Lamoriello said. "What we have no control of, you can’t be distracted by, and all you can do is just stay focused on what you do have control of, and our coaching staff has done that. We’ve asked players to do that and I think they’ve done a tremendous job over the set of circumstances."
The Islanders had six players unavailable because of COVID-19 for both the 5-2 loss to the Flames on Nov. 20 in the first game at their $1.1 billion UBS Arena and last Sunday’s 3-0 home loss to the Maple Leafs.
But honestly, after waiting years — decades — for a new home, opening weekend was not going to be postponed.
This was a confluence of unfortunate events: The Islanders’ COVID-19 outbreak coming right when the team was christening its long-awaited arena on the heels of a 13-game road trip and injuries that have sidelined lineup stalwarts Ryan Pulock and Brock Nelson.
But the NHL, too, has other factors to consider.
For now, the plan is to send its players to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. Doing so — and adding in the NHL’s All-Star Weekend — will mean a three-week pause in the schedule. Too many postponements in an already-condensed schedule could take away the option to go to Beijing.
The Senators had three games postponed when they had 10 players plus associate coach Jack Capuano in COVID-19 protocol. But the Penguins and Sharks continued to play through outbreaks.
Both were able to remain in playoff contention. That’s not the case for the Islanders, whose chances of a fourth straight postseason berth are not good. Historically, 77% of teams in playoff positions at Thanksgiving wind up qualifying. The Islanders entered Saturday 12 points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
File this in the life-is-not-always-fair category.