Jake Walman testing positive for the coronavirus late in the season caught the St. Louis Blues off guard.
“Everyone was a little bit shocked because he was vaccinated,” Blues leading scorer David Perron said.
Walman was retested and sent into quarantine with COVID-19, teammate Nathan Walker also tested positive and then Perron joined them on the NHL's protocol list — missing all four games of a first-round sweep by Colorado.
The Blues weren't alone as the virus took its toll on the first round of the playoffs despite a high rate of vaccination around the NHL: Washington was hampered down the stretch and in its first two playoff games without Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov available. The Capitals lasted one game more than St. Louis but were ousted by Boston earlier this week.
“It’s unfortunate and it shows that (vaccination is) not perfect,” Perron said Tuesday. “It’s a tough bounce for the three guys that got it.”
Since the playoffs began May 15, only the Blues and Capitals have had players on the league's protocol list: Perron, Walker, Walman, Kuznetsov and Samsonov. St. Louis was no match for Presidents' Trophy-winning Colorado without several key players, including some who were injured, and Washington was overpowered by the Bruins in five games after things went awry.
While Perron said he had symptoms for a few days, Kuznetsov's situation was a bit of a head-scratcher. He and Samsonov missed several weeks earlier in the season with symptomatic COVID-19, but he said he was fine this time despite testing positive.
“The rules (say) if you tested positive for COVID, then they retest the test and if it (came back) positive you have to quarantine for 10 days,” Kuznetsov said. "Then you go for (a) physical couple days, then you can skate with the team after 14 days.”
While Kuznetsov and Samsonov were out for two weeks, the Capitals missed their opportunity to finish first in the East Division. They skated for only four days before rejoining the lineup mid-series amid other major absences and played three games before Washington's season was done.
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said he believed nine of the 12 U.S. playoff teams reached the 85% “fully vaccinated” threshold required for relaxed virus protocols, which began at the start of the playoffs. Eight of the 10 left are at that level; the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are the only team so far to confirm fully vaccinated status.
The four North Division playoff teams are currently unable to get there because of Canada's plan to delay second vaccine doses. That division is down to three after Winnipeg swept Edmonton.
The NHL Players' Association has been educating players that getting vaccinated prevents against death and hospitalization from COVID-19, not 100% protection from contracting the virus.
Perron thought his was a false positive before re-tests showed he had a breakthrough infection.
The NHL last week investigated testing irregularities that led to multiple false positives for the Blues and Vegas Golden Knights and found it to be a laboratory error. Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said his team had nine false positives in one day.
“It wasn’t a pleasant exeprience,” DeBoer said. “Obviously unbelievable concern and worry about what that means and what that’s going to look like for your team going forward (so) we waited around. I think once we heard that there was multiple teams in the same situation, I think we started to put two and two together and realize that it was probably some type of lab error and that’s what it turned out to be.”
Perron expressed frustration that the regular-season schedule was shifted around when teams had outbreaks and the Blues’ playoff series wasn’t delayed for their cases.
“As a team we go the whole year cleanly, basically one of the only teams in the NHL, and we lived through some games that were canceled and all that stuff,” Perron said. “It is disappointing to go through the whole time and that’s when it happens at the end.”
After 51 regular-season games were postponed, none have had to be pushed back so far in the playoffs. The only potential scare was Game 2 between Colorado and St. Louis, which went ahead after a league investigation.
“You are always worried about false positives, but that’s been a concern all year long and doesn’t really relate to vaccinated status,” Daly said in an email. “I would imagine the concern has decreased significantly in a more vaccinated environment.”
Perron's final day in protocol was Game 4, when St. Louis was eliminated from the playoffs. While he feels like he has played through worse, Perron understood the situation and just wished it would have gone differently so he could have suited up.
“I was just hoping at least the boys would get one win there because there’s a chance that I could’ve maybe played” in Game 5, he said. “I just wanted to be out there, find a way out there, and who knows what can happen.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press