He returned to the crease against arguably the hottest — and best team — in the NHL.
Then he shut them out.
Elvis Merzlikins made 31 saves as the Columbus Blue Jackets blew out the Carolina Hurricanes 6-0 on Thursday night at PNC Arena. It’s Merzlikins’ second shutout of the season and ninth of his career. The win snapped the Hurricanes' six-game point streak.
Merzlikins was making his first start of the new year (first since Dec. 30) after missing time with a lower-body injury suffered in a game against the Hurricanes on New Year's Day — a game he entered in relief.
It's one thing to miss any amount of time. It's another to come back after about two weeks away and then have to face one of the best teams in the Hurricanes: A team who had outscored the Blue Jackets 12-5 in two prior wins already.
At the outset of Thursday's game, the Blue Jackets held their own and exponentially grew stronger as the game carried on. Ditto for Merzlikins.
"Elvis was solid tonight," said Brad Larsen. "He made some big saves but more the timing of them. It's 1-0, he makes those two key saves there in the first period to keep it at 1-0."
Neither Larsen nor Merzlikins cared much about what happened against the Hurricanes on New Year's Day. It was about the task at hand coming into Thursday's game.
"I'm happy for tonight's win," said Merzlikins. "The boys really worked in front of me, they blocked shots. They did a good job defensively and obviously, we scored some goals so that was fun as well."
Thursday's win was an example of a 60-minute effort against a really good team. The Blue Jackets demonstrated the characteristics of what can make them dangerous, and also brings to mind their early-season success.
"We got burned in some games, said Merzlikins. "Even if you want to take the example, the last Carolina game we played at home. We had to learn and that's what we're doing. We have to find back that game, what we did like at the start (of the season) and that's how we have to play. I think the Christmas break was a good thing for us to rest and now with a free mind we can start playing our hockey."
How big was the save on Sebastian Aho and did that increase his confidence?
"Obviously it helps with your confidence," said Merzlikins. "You feel more confident after a huge save like that so that was nice, felt good. For me, most important thing was feel back the flow, feel back the game, the puck. I didn't play for 10 days, 11 or whatever, so it was really nice to come back and play with a free mind. Our Christmas and New Year's are over. Now I have a light mind and liking the start of the season so I just want to try to focus and do my best."
Merzlikins was in his proper frame of mind to put on a good performance on the ice, which just so happened to be in his first game back against a very fast and skilled team — the same Hurricanes team that scored seven unanswered goals in their 7-4 win at Nationwide Arena on Jan. 1.
"I have to fix my mind and the guys have to fix their own minds," said Merzlikins. "They have their own job, I can't help them score goals or teach them how to do the power play. I don't understand anything from that and I really don't care what they are doing on the power play.
I didn't really put that game (Jan. 1) on my shoulders because I had my own personal reasons on it and the learning was...the only thing that there were a lot of goals in 20 minutes. This is hockey, bad nights are going to happen. It's not going to be just one and quite honestly I'm glad that it's happening because that's how you learn."
The big test will be seeing how the Blue Jackets move forward from Thursday's win as they play another very good team in the Florida Panthers on Saturday night in Sunrise.
"I don't think we ever lost the belief," said Merzlikins. "We really believe in each other. We're a strong family right now. Being here three years in this team and this organization I can tell you that this is the year that I feel most closely to the boys and it's really nice to come to the rink in the morning and work. We win together, we lose together, we do mistakes together, and we help each other together."
When you have a shutout, you're really good, but you're probably also a little lucky. Adam Boqvist bailed out his friend with his own good goalie interpretation.
"I really didn't see it, I heard that he said 'you had it,' well I didn't, and then he said 'I got it.' Well, thank you (laughing). So he's saving my ass there and thanks to him, most probably, I got a shutout today."
Thursday's victory was simultaneously the Blue Jackets' most impressive and complete game of the season so far. It was also a huge road victory as Columbus improves to 6-11-0 away from Nationwide Arena. Merzlikins improves to 3-6-0 on the road (.886 SV%, 4.10 GAA).
Overall, Merzlikins is 13-8-1 (.911, 3.04). His save percentage ranks 13th while his goals against average rank 14th among all goalies in the league.
Thursday's victory was fun. Now, roll the same lineup on Saturday and see if you can make it two-for-two against the Panthers on the road trip.