MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers played in an empty Bell Centre on Thursday night.

The Canadiens announced about two hours before puck drop Quebec public health officials had requested that no fans attend the game due to the "spiralling rise of COVID-19 cases in the region."

The team said in a statement it accepted the request "in order to help ensure the safety and security of our fans and fellow citizens."

"Playing tonight's game in a closed setting is obviously disappointing for our fans," said France Margaret Bélanger, president of Sports and Entertainment of Groupe CH in a statement Thursday evening.

"We know you would like more clarity regarding Saturday's game, and we will share more information in that regard as soon as it becomes available tomorrow morning."

The Canadiens are scheduled to play the rival Boston Bruins on Saturday. Boston has six players in COVID-19 protocol, including captain Patrice Bergeron and star winger Brad Marchand.

Montreal says it has been assured it will be allowed to return to partial capacity at the Bell Centre beginning in January. The Canadiens also announced that the Rocket, their American Hockey League affiliate in Laval, Que., will also be without fans when it hosts the Providence Bruins on Friday.

Quebec health officials reported 2,736 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday — the highest number since Jan. 8 — and five additional deaths linked to the disease.

Earlier in the day, a Quebec government health-care research institute said it expected more than 700 non-ICU hospitalizations in the province, and more than 160 people in intensive care, within two to three weeks.

— With files from Jacob Serebrin.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2021.