Islanders back to ice as Phase Two of NHL plan begins
Josh Bailey and his New York Islander teammates spent the past three months pensively waiting for an opportunity to return to the one thing that wasn’t available to them while they were cooped up in their respective homes.
“There’s no substitute for skating,” Bailey said Monday afternoon after he, fellow forwards Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck and goaltender Thomas Greiss engaged in a light workout at the team’s Northwell Health Ice Center on Long Island as Phase Two of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan began.
“It was nice to just get back in there,” added Bailey, who has been unable to lace up his skates in earnest since the league shut down operations on March 12 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a familiar place for us and nice to get back on the ice too. It’s been a while and we’re comfortable out there, so it was nice to feel the puck. We didn’t go too crazy on Day 1, but it was fun to get out there.”
Though the league hasn’t announced a specific date for when it will begin its 24-team postseason tournament, the NHL did encourage teams to start having non-contact skating drills and other workouts at training facilities, as long as health and safety regulations were being followed.
“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said when introducing his Return to Play Plan last week. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.
“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible. And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion,” he added.
All teams must adhere to the Phase Two Protocol, which was released by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association on May 25. The 21-page document is intended to provide players with a safe and controlled environment to resume their conditioning.
The Protocol also greatly limits the amount of serious practice time the players will be afforded until they can gather in larger groups.
Three skaters and a goalie hardly makes for a full NHL practice, but Bailey, who addressed the media via a Zoom call following the workout, was just glad to take the trip from his Long Island home to meet up and skate with his teammates.
“We just went through some puck handling, pretty basic stuff that we would do with a group of that many guys anyhow,” Bailey said.
“After three months there’s a little bit of rust, so you just get out there and get your legs underneath you.”
Not all of Bailey’s teammates live in the area, or in the country, so getting together for a full practice is impossible at this point, even if the league did allow gatherings of more than four to six players at this stage in the re-opening plan.
Phase Three of the NHL’s plan, which would include a full training camp ahead of the expanded postseason race for the Stanley Cup in two yet-to-be-determined hub cities, isn’t expected to begin until July 10 at the earliest.
That gives Bailey and his teammates, many of whom will start filtering back onto Long Island in the next several weeks, almost a month to get back into shape for a season that paused with them sitting one point behind Carolina and Columbus for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
But the Isles won’t have to fight for a postseason position. They are locked into a best-of-five, first-round qualifier series against the Florida Panthers, giving them their second straight postseason appearance after they were swept out of the East semifinals by Carolina last year.
“It’ll definitely be different,” Bailey said of the NHL’s postseason set-up.
“No matter how it all comes together, when, how, if, whatever the case may be. It won’t be what we are accustomed to. But when you’re with the team it kind of gives you that feeling of normalcy.”
Getting back to normal after three months of sheltering in place might provide some challenges for Isles players.
However, Isles Team President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello intimated that just having a place to skate and reunite with teammates is major progress for a club that hasn’t been together since suffering a 5-4 shootout loss in Vancouver on March 10.
“Even if a player decides he doesn’t want to start skating Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, at least he knows he has the option, and there’s a comfortability with that,” Lamoriello said.
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