Tampa Bay Lightning backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney shed some light on his absence from the team while on the NHL's unavailable due to COVID protocol list.
McElhinney was first included on the list January 16, the day after Tampa Bay's second game of the season. He remained there until Friday, nearly two full weeks, the longest a Lightning player has spent on the list. McElhinney returned to practice for Saturday's morning skate ahead of a home game against Nashville and trained for a second-straight day with his teammates during the Bolts' session at the TGH Ice Plex Sunday.
McElhinney said it's been "a little frustrating" for him the past couple of weeks.
"It's tough when you're kind of pulled away from everything and you're just supposed to sit by yourself and isolate," he said. "It was a little challenging. It's all about just the time away and making sure that for me, personally, it was more just kind of following along with the team, watching it on TV, seeing how everybody was doing, checking in, just trying to keep tabs on people to stay connected to it."
Video: McElhinney | 1.31.21
The experience of watching his team play on TV while he was isolated in his home reminded McElhinney of his time in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. McElhinney never got into a game during the Bolts' Stanley Cup run, Andrei Vasilevskiy playing every minute of all 25 contests. And because there was not enough room on the bench for him, McElhinney often found himself watching the action in the locker room with staff members, dressed and ready to go in case his number was called.
"The hardest part is just not being around it day to day," McElhinney said. "You get used to seeing a handful of guys and the staff and coming to the rink and having that routine."
Quarantining was a challenge too, McElhinney said, because there weren't a lot of areas in his house to self-isolate.
"The most challenging part is to the kids and the wife, the kids have been held out of school for a couple weeks already this year," he said. "We've gone through the online schooling, and then with myself being pulled out and having to isolate for a couple weeks was a little bit of a challenge. I don't have that big of a house, so there's not too many places to hide in there."
He wasn't able to train much in isolation either.
"It's more just lay low, kind of mind your business, don't do too much," the 37-year-old goalie said. "And other than that, for me, it's just kind of stretching, going through a bunch of mobility drills and things that kind of help my hips and knees stay loose. There's not much you can do. You can do some eye exercises, some simple things I have at home, but other than that it was a pretty quiet two weeks."
Despite the extended layoff without the ability to train normally, McElhinney was impressive during the Bolts' training session Sunday.
Video: Maroon | 1.31.21
"If you watched practice today, it looked like he didn't quarantine at all," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "He was outstanding. The one thing is, Mac's in his 30s, not in his 50s, so they rebound, maybe not as much as somebody in his 20s, but these guys are all pretty fit."
McElhinney said he felt pretty good both days of practice, which is encouraging, and is comfortable going into a game right now if needed. Cooper wasn't ready to say he'll put him in during the current four-game homestand, which continues Monday with the second of two games against the Predators, but said at the latest he'll start one of the games during Tampa Bay's first back-to-back set in Nashville February 8 and 9.
McElhinney, meanwhile, is just looking for any action at this point. His last game came almost 11 months ago in a 5-4 shootout loss in Detroit on March 8. The Lightning played just one more game before the 2019-20 season paused and the remainder of the contests were eventually cancelled. He didn't get into a game during the playoffs and has been unavailable for much of the current season.
"We're coming up close to a year right now (since the last start), so the first game will be nice and I'm sure a little bit exciting when I get in there," he said.