Devils return to practice after COVID-19 pause, face Rangers on Tuesday

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The New Jersey Devils returned to the ice Monday for practice after a 14-day pause to comply with NHL COVID-19 protocols, and coach Lindy Ruff compared it to hitting the reset button.

“We’re looking at this as the start of the season again,” Ruff said. “We were playing well, playing hard, and then we got hit pretty hard [with COVID-19], so it’s just been waiting for players to become available. This affected a lot of players differently and I don’t think any player is in the same category.

“Some players feel a lot better, and based on some of the skates you could see low energy levels. But I liked where we got ourselves today. A lot of the players that have been skating on their own said they’re starting to feel pretty good.”

The Devils had 25 players on the ice at RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House at Prudential Center. They are scheduled to play at the New York Rangers on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, MSG+, NHL.TV).

New Jersey (4-3-2) last played Jan. 31, a 5-3 win in the second of back-to-back games against the Buffalo Sabres. The next day the NHL postponed Devils games through at least Feb. 6 and closed their training facilities.

Since then, the Devils had as many as 19 players on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list, in addition to a coach and some staff members who tested positive for the virus. Seven games were postponed and four have been rescheduled. Games at the Philadelphia Flyers that were set to be played Feb. 11 and Feb. 13, and at the Boston Bruins on Monday, have yet to be rescheduled.

“I think as a team we’ve been super-conscious of wearing masks,” said forward Kyle Palmieri, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 31 and did not play against Buffalo. “I think we’re doing everything we could to stop the spread, but at the end of the day we’re spending the course of a game next to each other on a bench, breathing heavily. I mean, playing hockey is a tough sport.”

There were 13 players removed from the protocol list Saturday and Sunday. Forward Nathan Bastian was removed Monday.

Four players remain on the COVID-19 protocol list: forwards Travis Zajac, Nikita Gusev and Nico Hischier, and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

Zajac is two games shy of 1,000 in the NHL, all with New Jersey. He would join defenseman Ken Daneyko (1,283 games), goalie Martin Brodeur (1,259) and forward Patrik Elias (1,240) as the only players with 1,000 games for the Devils.

“I’ve been talking to [Zajac], if not daily, every couple of days,” Palmieri said. “He’s starting to feel a lot better and hopefully we get him back soon. I know there’s a couple guys that are getting on the ice for the first time today so we’re just going to work through it, just continue to get guys back and get as close as we can to a full team.”

Hischier, who has yet to play this season after a leg injury sustained prior to the start of training camp, may be available if he is removed from the protocol list Tuesday.

“[Hischier] was very close to playing before he got [COVID-19],” Ruff said.

Palmieri said the Devils medical team has done everything possible to get players ready for the restart.

“I’ve been talking to [the medical staff] daily, if not multiple times a day,” he said. “Obviously as hockey players and athletes, it’s hard to not move or get exercise for 10-12 days and just sit there. So I think they’ve done a great job of not only checking in and seeing how we’re feeling, but giving us opportunities to at least do what we can to make it so our bodies are a little more prepared to come back and get back into the swing of things.”

Goalie Mackenzie Blackwood was 2-0-1 with a 1.90 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in three games before he was placed on the protocol list Jan. 21. He came off Feb. 2.

“Before the break my game felt really good,” Blackwood said. “It’s just been a battle for me coming back. We’re getting there so you just have to be positive. Today was the best I’ve felt in a while.

“I had a really bad cough and a hard time breathing, but never had any fever. It hit me in the chest pretty hard so it was just about getting my wind back. That’s basically been my battle.”

Palmieri said he doesn’t expect the Devils to be perfect in their first game since the pause.

“Today was really the first time getting back into a team-structured practice, so there’s going to be mistakes made tomorrow,” he said. “We had a good thing going before this break. It’s not like you turn on a light switch and be right back to where you were, but we’ve just got to focus on making sure we come out strong and I’m sure the energy is going to be high since it is Devils-Rangers.”

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