Sabres rallying together in return to practice after COVID-19 pause

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The Buffalo Sabres returned to the ice Tuesday after a seven-day pause because of NHL COVID-19 protocols, and general manager Kevyn Adams said their focus is on looking ahead, not back at the frustration of having to shut down. 

The practice included 18 members of the Sabres, but coach Ralph Krueger, who tested positive for the virus, and the nine players on the protocol list were not at KeyBank Center.

“This is about us rallying together,” Adams said. “… These guys that aren’t with us right now, we’ve got to support them, we’ve got to get healthy, we’ve got to really pull together in this fight as a Buffalo Sabres organization and our fan base and just use that.

“So that’s what I’m more interested in, rather than looking back and being frustrated or upset. It’s more about, let’s move forward. And let’s do this together.”

The nine Sabres players on the protocol list are: forwards Dylan Cozens, Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, Casey Mittelstadt and Tobias Rieder; and defensemen Rasmus Dahlin, Jake McCabe, Brandon Montour and Rasmus Ristolainen.

Adams said Krueger and some of the players are symptomatic. The GM did not provide an update on whether Krueger will be able to coach the Sabres when they return to play. Their next game is scheduled for Monday at home against the New York Islanders.

“If he is where we need him to be, and he’s able to get out of the protocols and be back, then he will be and if he’s not, the doctors are going to decide where and when that happens,” said Adams, who said he speaks with Krueger multiple times per day.

Assistant Steve Smith ran practice Tuesday. Assistant Don Granato, who had pneumonia last season, could move off the bench because of health concerns.

Initially the Sabres game Feb. 2 against the Islanders was postponed, with five more postponed since.

“I think the important part is learning and understanding what happened, which we still don’t have all the information [about] exactly kind of how this all played out,” Adams said.

The Sabres last played Jan. 31, the second of back-to-back games against the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have 19 players on the protocol list; they entered the game Jan. 31 with six players on the list and added four players to it the following day, when they had their remaining games that week postponed. New Jersey is next scheduled to play Feb. 16 at the New York Rangers.

Buffalo placed its first two players, Hall and Ristolainen, on the protocol list Feb. 2.

“We hadn’t had any cases, our players have been incredibly disciplined,” Adams said. “We come into a situation where potentially it was in the New Jersey locker room, and now, we are where we are. So there’s certainly the ability to connect the dots, but I don’t want [it to seem] in any way, where I’m saying that it’s happening.

“I think we have to let time play out, we have to let the contact tracing play out, we have to let the doctors be the experts.”

Adams said he spoke to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly ahead of the game Jan. 30, along with NHL doctors, team doctors and doctors from the NHL Players’ Association, in addition to other experts. He said nothing changed after those initial conversations to indicate that they should not play the game Jan. 31.

“Nobody’s doing anything that puts the players in a position where they don’t think they should be,” Adams said. “It’s just they’re making the best decision they can in the moment. And then I think what you’re going to see is that there’s a lot of learning going on. What happens, what we learn from our situation, will the League learn and make changes as we go? That’s likely.”

Adams said his first concern over the past week was for the players and that he is “really proud” of them. He said he spent a lot of time in conversations with them.

“I believe the spirit of our group is really, really good right now,” Adams said. “I sense a relief to be back in our building, and to be able to go on the ice and practice.

“And I also sense an opportunity for this group to pull together and to say, ‘OK, this is challenging. This happened. It’s unfortunate, but we’re going to rally together and go to work.’ And part of the message to the group that I had was certainly don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for us. We have to get through this. And we have to do it together.”

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