WASHINGTON (AP) — Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon made his season debut against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night after being cleared from the NHL's COVID-19 protocol.
MacKinnon missed Colorado's first two games after testing positive for the coronavirus. He had been in the league's COVID-19 protocol since Oct. 12.
The three-time MVP finalist, who is fully vaccinated, needed to test negative twice to be cleared to rejoin the team and took a separate flight to the East Coast for the start of the Avalanche's road trip.
MacKinnon said he was “pumped to play” after taking the ice Tuesday morning for the first time in eight days.
“I didn’t think I’d even get two negatives," he said. "I thought I’d have to wait the 10 days and miss the first two games of the road trip and probably the third one, too.”
Instead, MacKinnon centered Colorado's first line between fellow All-Star Mikko Rantanen and former Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky. Captain Gabriel Landeskog is serving the second and final game of his suspension for boarding, so MacKinnon's return was welcome for the Avalanche.
"I would say it’s a pleasant surprise because I wasn’t expecting him (to play) tonight," coach Jared Bednar said after his team's morning skate. “He would have needed the two tests that were still out, and both of them would have had to have been negative. It just so happens they both were, so here he is.”
Because he is vaccinated, the 26-year-old’s absence was considered a hockey-related injury and he was paid during his time away.
“I didn’t feel anything,” MacKinnon said. “I was good. I was working out the whole time at home, doing what I can to stay in shape. It’s just unfortunate. I didn’t infect anybody in my family. Nobody got sick, no teammates got sick, so that’s lucky, I guess.”
Colorado defenseman Jack Johnson is also back after missing the previous game after testing positive. Johnson got his second negative test back Monday in time to fly with the team.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said on opening night last week that the NHL had only four unvaccinated players out of roughly 700 on active rosters. He acknowledged the pandemic will still play a factor this season, such as vaccinated players missing games, and stressed the need for vigilance across the league's 32 teams.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press