The Columbus Blue Jackets were an afterthought to begin the season.
They were written off, dismissed and disregarded after an offseason that saw them lose goal scorer Artemi Panarin (Rangers), goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (Panthers) and center Matt Duchene (Nashville).
Yet somehow, the Blue Jackets entered All-Star Weekend holding the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. And it’s in large part because Elvis entered the building.
Coach John Tortorella has done masterful work getting his roster to buy into a grinding style that features a physical forecheck and disciplined defense. But it works because he’s found a new goaltender to replace Bobrovsky, and rookie Elvis Merzlikins is one of the main reasons Columbus is still afloat.
“Goaltenders can have talent, they can be athletic and all that, but I think he has a mindset of he’s strong there mentally,” Tortorella said of his 25-year-old netminder. “A lot of things have been thrown at him here. Coming right in here when we lose (primary starter Joonas Korpisalo to injury after) not playing much. I think he’s handled himself really well.”
Merzlikins has been a revelation since replacing Korpisalo, who hasn’t played since Dec. 29 with a torn meniscus. The Riga, Latvia, native has a 2.39 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in 21 games.
Despite his limited early playing time, he ranks ninth in the NHL in goals saved above average with 10.82.
He also has shown off a personality that has led Tortorella to dub him “a piece of work.” He strummed his stick like a guitar after his first career shutout against the Golden Knights on Jan. 11.
THE BEST SHOW IN VEGAS pic.twitter.com/DrHRKzE2DC
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) January 12, 2020
“Well, I had to. I had to do it because we are in Vegas,” said Merzlikins, who dedicated the shutout to his late father.
It was his father’s love of the former Las Vegas headliner that led to his first name, but Merzlikins said he doesn’t know too many of the icon’s songs.
“It’s really old music for my generation,” Merzlikins said.
He does know “Viva Las Vegas,” and was impressive enough against the Knights to prevent it from playing in T-Mobile Arena. It was the first victory of his current five-game winning streak, just another component of his astonishing season for an overlooked team.
“I wanted to see even myself what I am capable of,” Merzlikins said. “I don’t want to think about anything. I just want to play my hockey and enjoy it and try to have fun.”
Pressure on Sakic
The trade deadline should provide several NHL general managers with fascinating decisions.
The league’s oft-trumpeted parity means only a few teams are truly out of the playoff picture. And several in it can’t feel secure about their positions.
So how much do young teams that have surprised like the Blue Jackets, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers add? Is now the time to accelerate their rebuilds or should they stay the course?
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators face the opposite dilemma. Their talented rosters have disappointed early, so do their GMs resign their teams to their fate? Or do they use assets to improve a team that just might not be up to snuff?
Those kind of choices probably led to a restless All-Star Weekend for several executives.
RJ’s best and worst
Review-Journal hockey writer Ben Gotz gives his best and worst NHL teams each week (record and goal differential are through Saturday):
1. Washington Capitals (33-11-5, +33)
They have 18 road wins, four more than any other team.
2. Boston Bruins (29-10-12, +34)
Their goaltending duo of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak continues to impress. Each played his 500th game this season.
3. St. Louis Blues (30-11-8, +24)
What a stretch of hockey in St. Louis. The city won its first Stanley Cup in June and hosted its third All-Star Game on Saturday.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-14-5, +32)
It’s a shame center Evgeni Malkin wasn’t named an All-Star. He has 50 points and has been nothing short of spectacular.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning (29-15-4, +38)
They’ve scored 3.7 goals per game in January and allowed 1.7.
27. Anaheim Ducks (19-24-5, -28)
They had an OK October, but have since collapsed with an 11-18-5 record.
28. Ottawa Senators (17-23-8, -33)
It’s cool that left wing Brady Tkachuk was named to the All-Star Game since his brother Matthew of the Calgary Flames was, too.
29. New Jersey Devils (17-24-7, -47)
Their postbreak focus needs to be the continued development of centers Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes.
30. Los Angeles Kings (18-27-5, -33)
They’re 1-6-1 in 2020.
31. Detroit Red Wings (12-35-4, -90)
They’re not going to match the lowest goal differential in history (-265), set by the expansion Capitals. But it won’t be for lack of trying.