ELMONT, N.Y. — When Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen returned from COVID-19 protocols Saturday, he was surprised by how poorly he felt.
Ristolainen had a bad case of COVID-19 last season when he was with the Buffalo Sabres, and he was worried when he tested positive last Tuesday. But he only experienced mild flu symptoms and came back after four days.
“And then the first day I got on the ice, I actually felt worse than I thought compared to my symptoms,” Ristolainen said.
While Ristolainen was out, interim coach Mike Yeo said the Flyers felt his absence in five-on-five play, but especially on the penalty kill. However, they didn’t want to rush him back, so they kept him out of the lineup for Saturday’s 3-2 home loss to the New York Rangers.
After the additional rest, Ristolainen said he felt good and ready to go for Monday’s game at the New York Islanders. He was set to be back on the penalty kill, but he was to return to a different defensive pairing. Instead of making up the second pair with Travis Sanheim, Yeo elected to keep Ivan Provorov and Sanheim on the top pair and Justin Braun and Cam York on the second pair. Ristolainen slid onto the third grouping with Keith Yandle.
Ristolainen was excited to play with Yandle, with whom he hadn’t had the chance to skate.
“First of all, he’s a great guy,” Ristolainen said. “He’s super smart on the ice, and he’s really good at passing the puck. And, you know, he talks a lot. So that’s easy for me.”
The Flyers now have all their players back from COVID-19 protocols. They are still missing centers Sean Couturier, Derick Brassard, Patrick Brown and Nate Thompson, as well as defenseman Ryan Ellis, to injury.
No fun in losing
“Losing sucks,” Yeo said. “Nobody’s having fun losing. There’s no question about that.”
Yet the players are still coming to the rink, working hard and having fun, even amidst a seven-game skid. They joke around, cheer each other on, and stay after morning skate and practice officially end. That takes character, Yeo said.
“The way for us to handle things the right way is for all of us to continue to show up and individually make sure that we’re ready to do what we have to do,” Yeo said. “Have a good attitude. Continue to work, continue to build, continue to learn, and I feel like the guys have really embraced that.”
Claude Giroux, the team’s captain, said they’re trying to take it day by day because looking at the big picture can get overwhelming. They’re putting in extra work, communicating with each other beyond when they are at the rink together, to make sure they’re all on the right page.
The leadership core that the Flyers built up in the offseason is setting a good example through the skid, Yeo said, and it’s slowly starting to pay off. Leaders act as an example, and recent games have showed things are starting to trend the right way.
“We put ourselves in a position to win the game last game,” Yeo said of Saturday’s game. “We did things sort of the right way for about 80% of the time. Now we have to make sure we do it 100% of the time.”
The Flyers are just looking to “put a few wins together,” Giroux said. That will help build confidence, according to Yeo, but they know they’re playing another desperate team. The Islanders are last in the Metropolitan division with an 11-13-6 record but have won three of their last four.
Monday’s game was the Flyers’ first in the Islanders’ new arena, UBS Arena. Ristolainen and Giroux both said they don’t care as much about the new arena as they do about winning. ... Martin Jones started in net. ... Connor Bunnaman was back in the lineup in place of Jackson Cates. He was centering the fourth line with Morgan Frost on the wing at practice. Yeo said both players can play either position.