Instead of spending Saturday afternoon visiting the Ottawa Senators, the New York Rangers were on their practice rink, except for Mika Zibanejad.
Zibanejad was held out practice after being placed in the COVID-19 protocol and the Rangers are hopeful he will get cleared by the time they host the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.
"Obviously it would be a pretty big curveball for us, but I'm pretty confident he's going to be able to play." New York forward Chris Kreider said.
While Kreider was optimistic, first-year coach Gerard Gallant had his doubts. He emphasized that he did not know if Zibanejad would miss any time but also said he couldn't divulge specifics about the 28-year-old center, who missed all of last season's training camp battling the virus. Zibanejad then started the 56-game schedule slowly before finishing with 24 goals and 50 points.
The Rangers were originally supposed to be on the second part of a back-to-back set on Sunday but their game in Ottawa was postponed due to the Senators' COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, the Rangers had two days to try and fix the things that went wrong in a 2-1 loss to the host Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
New York saw its four-game winning streak stopped when its only goal came from Dryden Hunt early in the third period. Hunt's goal occurred on a night when the Rangers won nine of 46 faceoffs.
"It's frustrating," New York's Ryan Strome said. "I know we work so hard on it. When you give a good team the puck to start, it's really hard."
Zibanejad won four of his six faceoffs Thursday and has won 48.4 percent of his faceoffs, which is among the highest on the team. His 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) are also third on the team and if he does not play, Greg McKegg might take his place in the lineup after practicing on a line with Kreider and Barclay Goodrow on Saturday.
If Zibanejad sits, he would join Strome as the second Rangers player to miss time due to COVID-19 protocols this season. Strome missed four games last month after testing positive.
"Obviously we hope to have him," New York defenseman Adam Fox said. "But if we don't, other guys will step up."
Buffalo is 2-6-1 in its past nine games since getting off to a 5-1-1 start with a 4-3 overtime win at Anaheim on Oct. 28. The Sabres have allowed 35 of their 49 goals in that span and allowed five goals for the fifth time in their skid on Thursday when they absorbed a 5-0 home loss to the Calgary Flames.
Buffalo allowed four goals in the second period to the Flames while struggling defensively in front of goaltender Dustin Tokarski. Players are optimistic Thursday was an aberration in quality of its performances.
"You have maybe one practice day where we stunk and then we have one game where we really stunk," Buffalo's Kyle Okposo said. "Like, that's not a norm. I'm not worried at all. We're going to revert back to what we usually do. I have the utmost confidence in the guys."
New York went 6-1-1 last season against Buffalo and is 13-4-1 in the past 18 meetings.
--Field Level Media