When the Rochester Grizzlies got back on the ice on Monday morning, their practice looked exactly like head coach Chris Ratzloff expected it would.
"A little rusty," he said.
The Grizzlies got a pass that day for their rustiness, considering it was the first time they'd been on the ice in 14 days.
After sweeping back-to-back two-game series against the St. Louis Jr. Blues to open the 2020-21 North American 3 Hockey League season, COVID-19 made its way through the Grizzlies' locker room. That meant a two-week quarantine for the entire team and the postponement of scheduled two-game series against Wausau (Oct. 16-17) and Peoria (Oct. 23-24).
Rusty or not, the Grizzlies were ready to get back on the ice this week and prepare for this weekend's home-and-home series against the Milwaukee Power. The teams meet at 7:05 p.m. Friday at the Rochester Recreation Center, then play again at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ozaukee Ice Center in the northern Milwaukee suburb of Mequon.
"Monday we kept practice short, did a lot of skill stuff," Ratzloff said. "We did skating, passing, shooting. The shooting was good -- guys must have been shooting pucks while they were off the ice -- the passing wasn't very good. Tuesday's practice was better and Wednesday we started to compete, so it got a lot better."
The Grizzlies, who sit atop the Central Division standings with a 4-0-0 record, had more than a month of practice time before playing their season opener on Oct. 1 at St. Louis. Following a two-week break, it feels a bit like they're starting the season over.
"It feels that way physically," Ratzloff said. "Mentally, hopefully we can pick up where we left off."
The Grizzlies will be familiar with at least one of Milwaukee's top players.
Max Erstand, an 18-year-old forward in his first season of junior hockey, signed a tender with the Grizzlies last spring. The Fond du Lac, Wis., native made the Grizzlies roster out of fall camp and played in both of their home games against St. Louis on Oct. 9-10. But Erstad's desire to be an every-night player, coupled with the Grizzlies' talented and packed roster, led to the team trading Erstad to Milwaukee.
Erstad showed his value immediately with the Power, recording two goals and an assist in their sweep of a two-game series last weekend against Wausau.
The Grizzlies also traded veteran forward Devin Hays to the Oregon (Wis.) Tradesmen. Like Erstad, Hays made an immediate impact with his new club, recording two goals and an assist against Peoria on Oct. 17. Hays had a chance at a hat trick, but just missed the net on a shot in overtime.
"Devin's such a good kid, but it's a situation where he needs to play a lot and here he'd have been in and out" of the lineup, Ratzloff said of Hays, who had 16 goals and 27 points in 41 games with the Grizzlies last season. "Then Max goes to Milwaukee and gets two goals and an assist in his first two games. That says a lot about those guys, and about the guys we have here, too.
"It was really tough (to trade Erstad and Hays). We try to recruit not just good hockey players, but good kids, too. You get to know these guys really well, especially with the long preseason we had this year ... they're all good players. You just have to look at the whole puzzle and figure out which pieces will fit the best."
TOUGH SERIES ON TAP
Milwaukee (3-3-0) sits just two points back of the first-place Grizzlies heading into this weekend's series.
The Power have already played every other team in the Central Division at least once, and sit at .500 through six games, having been outscored 25-21. Milwaukee may also be the most physical team in a division known for its physical play. The Power have a division-leading 100 penalty minutes so far this season, an average of 16.7 minutes per game.
"Typically they're very opportunistic," Ratzloff said. "They like to come at you offensively. They rely heavily on capitalizing on their opponents mistakes. That's our focus this weekend, being defensively sound and making sure we don't make those mistakes. ... That's every opponent in our division now, if you give any of them an opportunity, they'll make you pay."