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Maple Leafs Trying to Stay Diligent Amid Uptick in COVID-19 Cases

As the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list continues to increase at alarming rates, the Toronto Maple Leafs do their best to stay off of it while on the road.

VANCOUVER -- The Toronto Maple Leafs have a good thing going right now. They lead the NHL with 42 points (20-8-2) through games played on Wednesday. They have also managed to stay healthy, as far as COVID-19 goes. 

"We've just got to make sure we're staying on our Ps and Qs and making sure our team is healthy and not doing anything stupid," Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds said after his team's 5-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday.

The Leafs have had their fair share of injuries this season. Star forward Mitch Marner remains on the long-term injured reserve with a shoulder injury. They opened the season without Auston Matthews (wrist) and had injuries to forward Ilya Mikheyev (hand) and defenseman Travis Dermott (shoulder) just to name a few. 

But they've managed to stay away from COVID-19, a task that is getting increasingly difficult amid a recent surge that has made its way to the NHL.

The omicron variant, the source for a large increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across the world, was reportedly confirmed in the cases among the Calgary Flames players and staff. The initial wave of Flames players landing on the list forced the NHL to postpone their games this week, including the one the Leafs were originally scheduled to play on Thursday. 

Before the NHL and NHLPA reportedly introduced tightened COVID-19 protocols on Wednesday, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe had already been taking precautions. He stayed in his hotel when the team arrived in Edmonton on Sunday, except to go for a walk outside or head to the rink to perform his duties.

"Quite frankly, my priority right now is to get back to Toronto for Christmas healthy and safe," Keefe said. "It's more challenging with being on the road here now because I don't want to be stuck here until Christmas. There's lot of reasons to be smart right now and trying to do everything we can to contain it."

On Wednesday, the Government of Ontario announced that large events in the province would be reduced to 50 percent capacity, including Maple Leafs home games.

"For me, it's really sad, actually. But you know, it's a tough situation everywhere," Maple Leafs forward Ondrej Kase said.  "I hope it's a good decision for Toronto [and] Ontario."

The Montreal Canadiens played their home game against the Philadelphia Flyers with no fans in attendance on Thursday. That is perhaps the bleakest reminder of last season when fans in Canada could not attend any home games, at least during the regular season.

The Leafs have certainly felt the change that fans can make, whether playing in front of fans at Scotiabank Arena or out of town.

"It's tough for me," Keefe said. "We're certainly grateful to be able to still play in front of half capacity and the fans certainly have made an unbelievable difference this season. 

"Not just at home, just look at the other night in Edmonton. I mean, that response that our players are getting for a road game, that's tremendous, it's a great part about being a Leaf."

The Maple Leafs started the trip without forward Nick Ritchie, who was sick with a non-COVID illness. After a pair of tests that confirmed his illness wasn't COVID-related, he boarded an Air Canada flight to Vancouver on Wednesday to rejoin the team. 

"You see everyone in masks and when you hear about it you panic a little bit," Ritchie said about the experience. "I masked up and stayed as safe as I could, so that's all you can really do right now."

And there is a lot at stake, the New York Islanders had a COVID-19 outbreak last month that forced the postponement of games. Part of their 11-game losing streak intersected with that pause.

With obvious signs of how an outbreak can derail a season, the Maple Leafs can ill afford to have a setback. 

"It just is what it is right now," Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. "As a team, we have to continue to be mindful and as smart as we can be about making conscientious as we can to move forward."

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