As a Young Team Grows, the Blue Jackets Must Learn How To Adjust And Respond To Good Teams

By Will Chase on November 30, 2021 at 1:45 pm
Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets reaches for the puck against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

We've seen lots of good things from the Blue Jackets.

And, well, a few areas that need to improve.

At 12-7-0, there's been plenty of (mostly pleasant) surprises as they near the quarter mark of the 2021-22 season. There have been high highs, like Elvis Merzlikins' play, and layers of goal scoring including the first NHL goals for four players and 16 goals from the defense.

We've addressed the teams' resilience and ability to come back, perhaps needing to do so more often than one would care to admit. 

However, there's been at least one trend that Brad Larsen's group seeks to correct, and that's answering the opposition's push.

"I liked the first (period) and then for about 14 minutes there, we couldn't stop anything," Larsen said following Saturday night's loss to the St. Louis Blues. "We couldn't gather ourselves and last six (minutes) we were fine. Beginning of the third (period), we were fine... a couple of mistakes and that's it—and good teams do that."

Larsen knows his team has to be better at recognizing the situation and playing with more urgency when the opposition cranks it up.

"We gotta learn how to (respond)," Larsen said. "And that's something we gotta help coach them through it. We've got a practice coming up and we'll look at the video and try and address some things."

On Friday night, Merzlikins backstopped his way to a 39 save, 4-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks (6-13-2) have struggled so far this season but still made Columbus work hard for its win, outshooting the home team 41-21. Gus Nyquist had a shorthanded goal and the Blue Jackets were able to muster just enough to eke out the victory.

Against the Blues on Saturday, the Blue Jackets were impressive at the start, leading the Blues 1-0 after Boone Jenner's power play goal, and dictated much of the play and offensive zone time. The Blues responded with three goals in the second period and out-shot the Jackets 17-8 in the frame en route to a 6-3 win.

That's going to happen – but for Columbus, it's been a bit of a trend.

Similar results played out just a week earlier in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights when the Blue Jackets staked themselves to a quick 2-0 lead but saw that lead evaporate over the final 40 minutes in a 3-2 loss. Merzlikins was sensational and did all he could to keep the score close. 

Just a week before that, the Blue Jackets saw a 2-1 lead over the New York Rangers disappear in the blink of an eye – three Rangers goals in 1:03 – before falling 5-3 in that game. The night before, they had a lead wither away against the Washington Capitals in a tough 4-3 defeat.

As Zach Werenski said following the Rangers game: "We have to learn from it. All the good things we have done, we just have to keep doing them." The good news is the Blue Jackets have shown plenty of encouraging characteristics, including finding ways to win and starting new win streaks.

The Blue Jackets' longest losing streak this season is two games—against the Capitals and Rangers—and they haven't allowed tough games to snowball. Yet.

One reason for that has been Merzlikins.

He's been the ace in the net and has masked some weak areas for the team, namely a rash of odd-man rushes from the Golden Knights and key saves he made against the Canucks to limit the damage. That kind of brings to mind shades of Sergei Bobrovsky—not comparing either goalie, just sayin'.

Per Evolving Hockey, Merzlikins is 12th in the league among goaltenders with a 5.83 GSAx, which means he's done well to stop many of the highest-quality shots. In contrast, Joonas Korpisalo ranks towards the bottom of the league (-6.18), and while both have had great and bad games, Merzlikins has just made the most of his bulk of opportunities.

His postgame interviews are always spicy as well.

While it's good for Columbus that Merzlikins has consistently played well, we'll need to see the Blue Jackets collectively play better in critical situations against the better teams in the league, particularly after fast starts and when the push from the opposition is coming.

It's a learning process. The next test comes Tuesday on the road against the Nashville Predators, a literal house of horrors: Columbus is 9-33-1-6 all-time at Bridgestone Arena.