NHL Notebook: Boudreau finally gets valuable practice time with Canucks

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Bruce Boudreau took advantage of something he hasn't had much of since being hired to coach the Vancouver Canucks.

Time.

With the NHL pausing cross-border travel due to COVID-19 until after its holiday break, the 66-year-old bench boss put his players — the ones not in the league's virus protocol, at least — through their paces this week in hopes of truly putting his mark on a group that's blasted out to a 6-0-0 start under this new regime.

There's still, however, plenty of work to be done.

"It's amazing how you don't think how important training camp is," Boudreau told reporters in Vancouver. "But it certainly is important when you want to implement new things."

"I don't know how much better they'll be," he added. "But they'll be more knowledgeable about how I want them to play."

An NHL head coach for parts of 13 seasons before replacing the fired Travis Green in a culling that included the dismissal of general manager Jim Benning earlier this month, Boudreau had barely been on the ice with his team before the league postponed four of Vancouver's recent games — including Tuesday and Thursday.

"We haven't been able to implement all the changes I would like to implement," Boudreau said. "Or practise the changes that we have made."

The Canucks have had as many as six players in COVID-19 protocol recently, but went three straight days with negative tests before the NHL's holiday break, which was moved up 48 hours to run Wednesday through Saturday following the conclusion of Tuesday night's lone game on the schedule.

After taking Saturday and Sunday off — there were postponed games both nights — Boudreau spoke with Bo Horvat about how the group was feeling about getting back to work.

Vancouver's captain informed his new coach they were good to go.

The Canucks, of course, endured the league's worst COVID-19 outbreak last season when NHLers in Canada were still largely unvaccinated.

A total of 19 members of the active roster were infected. Veteran centre Brandon Sutter still hasn't returned to action due to "long-haul" symptoms.

The Canucks cancelled a morning skate and practice last week, but felt comfortable getting back on the ice beginning Monday with defenceman Luke Schenn out of protocol and five others, plus assistant coach Jason King, still in isolation.

"We were learning a lot about (COVID-19) last year, but this year has been a lot different," Horvat said. "We know how fast it can spread and what it can do.

"Taking a lot more precaution this year just from past experience."

Horvat said there's also been better communication between players, Boudreau and newly hired team president/interim GM Jim Rutherford compared to last season's COVID-19 outbreak.

"They listen to what we have to say and are willing to change things or do things to help us," Horvat said. "That's a good thing to have — communication between everybody — and not have a disconnect.

"It's been working well."

Boudreau confirmed there was plenty of dialogue when deciding on how to approach last week's skates in the wake of those positive COVID-19 cases.

"These guys have all gone through this and knew what the results were, and they didn't want that again," Boudreau said. "They were being really cautious, and probably a little bit afraid ... and I don't blame them.

"I'm a newbie at this with the pandemic. I'm definitely taking a lead from the people that have gone through it. If they tell me it's a better situation not to practise, we don't practise. It's as simple as that."

The practises, however, resumed this week with the Canucks looking to stay sharp following a run that's got them back in the Western Conference's playoff conversation with a 14-15-2 record.

Vancouver is currently scheduled to host the Seattle Kraken on Monday when the league returns from its holiday break.

"This is almost a little bit good for us, good for (Boudreau) to implement some stuff he couldn't on the fly," Horvat said of the NHL's pause. "He's taught us a couple things, but to actually get some practice time with us now — kind of have a mini-camp here — I think is going to be good for our systems and for us going forward."

Boudreau, meanwhile, is still getting to know his team.

He's also encouraged by their progress.

"They've played pretty well so far," he said. "If they got better, that would be great."

HURRICANES TOP EAST, AVS LEAD WEST AS NHL BREAKS

Based on points percentage, the Carolina Hurricanes (.741) sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with the league on its extended holiday pause until Sunday because of exploding COVID-19 cases and a rash of postponements.

The Tampa Bay Lightning (.733) sit second followed by the Toronto Maple Leafs (.700), New York Rangers (.700), Washington Capitals (.694), Florida Panthers (.690), Pittsburgh Penguins (.650) and Boston Bruins (.577) to round out the East's top-8.

In the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche (.667) are slightly ahead of the Minnesota Wild (.667) based on number of games played.

The Nashville Predators (.650), Calgary Flames (.643), St. Louis Blues (.629), Vegas Golden Knights (.625), Anaheim Ducks (.625) and Edmonton Oilers (.621) fill out of the rest of the top-8 in the West.

STAMKOS SETS BOLTS MARK

Steven Stamkos, who's set to miss out on another Olympics for Canada after the league announced it won't be going to Beijing, scored the winner in Tampa's 4-3 triumph over Vegas in the last game before the break Tuesday.

The Lightning captain's third-period effort that snapped a 3-3 tie was his 65th game-winning goal, which passed Martin St. Louis for the most in franchise history.

Alex Ovechkin (94), Jeff Carter (72), Phil Kessel (67) and Patrick Marleau (66) are the only four players with more game winners since Stamkos entered the league in 2008-09.

EMOTIONAL SPARKS BACK IN THE SHOW

Garret Sparks picked up his first NHL victory since March 2019 on Sunday, making 35 saves in the Los Angeles Kings' 3-2 win over Washington.

The 28-year-old suffered a concussion with the Leafs during the 2018-19 season before being traded to the Golden Knights.

His career journey eventually took him back to the third-tier ECHL before he spent the bulk of last season and the first few months of this one in the American Hockey League.

"You've got to start from the ground up and work your way back," an emotional Sparks told reporters post-game.

"It was just crazy to be on NHL ice again."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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