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Canucks to have first practice after COVID-19 pause, then play Oilers

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The Vancouver Canucks face a difficult situation as they return from a COVID-19 outbreak.

They are scheduled to practice Thursday for the first time since their season was paused March 31, and then they’re scheduled to play the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, their first game since March 24, and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

Vancouver is scheduled to play 19 games in 31 days to finish the 56-game regular season.

“I think it’s kind of crazy,” Canucks forward J.T. Miller said Wednesday. “I know that everybody’s got a job to do, but to expect pretty much our entire team to be ready to play [with] one practice and a pregame skate is a little bit hard to comprehend.”

Vancouver had seven players on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list Wednesday, down from 16 on Tuesday, after having 22 players and four staff members test positive. Miller said he did not have COVID-19.

“This is going to be a really tough challenge,” Miller said. “And you know, even for me, skating a couple times, my lungs are screaming and definitely not in game shape at all right now from sitting around and not doing much. I couldn’t imagine what these guys [who had COVID-19] are going to have to go through to get back and be ready to play at a high level against, you know … We’re playing two of the best players in the entire world on Friday (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) and another one of the best teams in the League on Saturday.

“I’d never thought I’d be in this scenario in my career. It’s going to be a start of a really long stretch, short but hard stretch at the end of the year here. A reaction? I don’t know. It’s not ideal, obviously, for anybody, but we have a job to do, I guess.”

Multiple NHL teams have faced a COVID-19 pause this season, including the Buffalo Sabres, Dallas Stars, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, Minnesota Wild and Philadelphia Flyers. The NHL has postponed 52 games because of the COVID-19 protocol since the regular season began Jan. 13.

The NHL postponed eight Vancouver games during this outbreak.

“By [Thursday], their ‘full team’ will be healthy and cleared. So we don’t see any additional risks from a health/COVID standpoint,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told TheHockeyNews.com in an email. “From a scheduling standpoint, their remaining schedule is challenging, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. Very similar compression to what a number of other teams have faced this year, and, quite frankly, what all teams face in Olympic years.

“But most importantly, the team wants to finish its season. We aren’t twisting arms here. Everything, including resumption date and various other critical aspects of their remaining schedule, were done entirely collaboratively and with club input and consent.”

Canucks general manager Jim Benning said Friday none of their players had said he didn’t want to finish the season. After their health started to improve, doctors from the team, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association conferred Friday and submitted a return-to-work plan to public health officials for approval.

Vancouver’s first team activity since the pause was Monday, when 10 players skated. The Canucks are expected to have well in excess of 20 players on the ice Thursday.

The NHL added days to the end of the regular season to give the Canucks more time to complete their 56 games. The regular season was originally scheduled to end May 8 and was later pushed to May 11. It is now scheduled to end May 16.

The Canucks will play their next six games at home.

“It’s been a very strange thing, and we know everybody’s trying to do their part, from people in the officials to our organization to the League,” Miller said. “I know it’s not easy on anybody, so I’m not pointing fingers. It’s just, it’s a hard situation.”

Miller said had the Canucks not had the outbreak, it would be different, but he has not thought about making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Vancouver (16-18-3) is sixth in the seven-team Scotia North Division, 10 points behind Montreal. The top four teams will make the playoffs.

“I’m just hoping everybody can stay as healthy as they can here,” Miller said. “That’s kind of like my main priority, is try to stay healthy. I haven’t really thought about expectations or how ready to play I’d be. I just know that it’s going to be tough to jump back into a game against a really good team.

“But at the end of the day, hopefully once we get started, the competitive juices will be flowing off the hop. Kind of the card we’ve been dealt, and we’ve got to deal with it now.”

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