Avalanche Predators Hockey

Colorado Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz (39) blocks a shot by Nashville Predators center Colton Sissons (10) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

As surreal as the pregame sounded, members of the Colorado Avalanche downplayed it. A game heavily affected by COVID-19 on both sides went ahead.

The rapid tests kept coming back reportedly within an hour of game time in Nashville. In the wake of defenseman Devon Toews' positive test announcement two days previously, four more Avalanche players entered COVID protocol on Thursday.

Star defenseman Cale Makar was ruled out just minutes before puck drop.

“Obviously it was kind of questioned in there during the day because guys were dropping, but we had enough guys to play a hockey game and that’s what we did,” forward Mikko Rantanen said. “It’s pretty simple.”

Thanks to a cocktail of time and salary cap constraints and with no taxi squad to draw from, the Avalanche went without in a 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators – themselves strongly affected by COVID protocol.

Goaltender Pavel Francouz said he found out about an hour and a half before puck drop that Darcy Kuemper, the named starter, entered protocol and wouldn’t play. Francouz made 30 saves and turned in one of the team’s better performances.

“It was kind of a surprise, but to be honest, I prepared for this game like I was playing since the morning,” Francouz said. “In the COVID world, you have to consider every possible option.”

Because of surgeries and injury, it was Francouz’s first NHL regular-season start since March 11, 2020, when the pandemic was about to begin wreaking havoc on the league schedule.

He returned to more upheaval. There have been multiple postponements around the league this week. Coach Jared Bednar confirmed an option to postpone the Nashville game was communicated to him.

“I just went to our players and said, 'What are you guys wanting to do?’” Bednar said.

“We were here to play a game. They were shorthanded, we were shorthanded. But we’re not using COVID as an excuse. We're here to win a hockey game. We had plenty of capable bodies in the lineup.”

Bednar said he found out about Andre Burakovsky’s status on Wednesday and fellow forward J.T. Compher’s on Thursday morning. Colorado rolled out 11 forwards, with Kurtis MacDermid previously moved up, and four defensemen. Blueliner Jack Johnson turned in a negative test after testing positive and joined the bench in the middle of the first period, according to his coach.

Colorado employed its second emergency backup goalie – a relatively rare occurrence - in nine games. Former Middle Tennessee State University goaltender Dustin Smith backed up Francouz.

“We're all basically dressed when we’re getting those results back. We're getting ready as a group and things are changing by the minute with guys getting pulled out of our room," Bednar said.

“All of our guys are here and ready to play. We were preparing for this game for two days, so for us, it wasn’t really much of an option (to postpone).”

Rantanen scored a power-play goal and Valeri Nichushkin added his third in two games, but the Predators extended their win streak to six games. The Avalanche’s own five-game win streak ended.

Nashville didn’t let either Colorado goal give the visiting team life. Predators goalie Juuse Saros had a hand in that and made 24 saves.

Nashville is one of the harder-hit teams in the NHL and the coaching staff Thursday was full of new faces. Forwards Mikael Granlund, Matt Luff, Michael McCarron, Philip Tomasino and defenseman Ben Harpur, head coach John Hynes, assistant coach Dan Lambert, assistant coach Todd Richards and goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok joined unavailable forward Ryan Johansen on Wednesday. Forward Nick Cousins was added to the list Thursday along with assistant coach Dan Hinote, who was supposed to fill in for Hynes as head coach Thursday.

“They're doing things right. Keeping it tight, defending well,” Rantanen said. “It was a tough grind for us but now we just have to bounce back right away.”

Notes: Bednar said he didn’t think either Compher or Burakovsky was symptomatic. Toews was symptomatic and is expected to be unavailable until at least Christmas. … The Avalanche announced the signing of forward Cal Burke to a one-year contract through the 2022-23 season. Burke will remain with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles, according to a team release.

Nichushkin scores twice as Colorado Avalanche beat New York Rangers for second time in a week
Colorado Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews enters COVID-19 protocol, Justin Barron recalled for debut
Colorado Avalanche goaltender Jonas Johansson claimed off waivers
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