Three Things: Long Odds, Looking At Any Improvement, BIG Rebound By Elvis

By Will Chase on January 8, 2023 at 8:06 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' Elvis Merzlikins and Blue Jackets' Andrew Peeke make a save against Washington Capitals defenseman Martin Fehervary during the first period at Capital One Arena.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Who'd have thought one (the only) goal would be the difference?

Erik Gustafsson scored the lone goal to lead the Washington Capitals over the Columbus Blue Jackets, 1-0, on Sunday at Capital One Arena.

Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway had assists.

Darcy Kuemper made 38 saves for his league-leading fourth shutout this season and 29th of his career. Elvis Merzlikins made 18 saves.

Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson both returned to the Capitals lineup for the first time this season. Backstrom missed the first 42 games due to off-season hip surgery. Wilson returned following an ACL tear suffered in Game 1 of the first-round playoff matchup with the Florida Panthers. Alex Ovechkin, still on goal No. 809, led the Capitals with five shots in 19:46. Patrik Laine led the game with nine shots.

Long Odds

The Blue Jackets are going to face tough odds the rest of the way.

Well, the Blue Jackets will have their next opportunity to complete that quest when they face the New York Rangers on Monday, Jan. 16 at Nationwide Arena and the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in Bridgestone Arena. The Blue Jackets are 2-0-0 against both teams, however, the record for the Blue Jackets in Nashville is not in their favor at all in the all-time series (9-34-1-6).

Columbus has eight back-to-backs remaining this season.

Looking At Any Improvement

The Blue Jackets entered play having allowed seven second-period goals over the last two games. That includes four on Thursday in their 6-2 loss to the Capitals at Nationwide Arena and then three in Saturday's 4-3 shootout victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Washington entered play with 58 second-period goals, just one below the Seattle Kraken for the most in the second period. The Capitals' differential of +23 coming into the day is tied for the best with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Columbus outshot the Capitals 12-5 in the second period—37-19 for the game—and stopped the bleeding on the scoreboard, as the lone first-period goal stood up for the game.

The game felt like it might be a carbon copy of Thursday's loss when Gustafsson beat Merzlikins just 2:43 into play.

Columbus' penalty kill entered the day 18th in the league (76.2%) but has struggled in the new year, allowing six goals in 14 chances (57.1%) entering Sunday. On Sunday, Washington whiffed on both of their chances. Columbus was 0-for-2 on the power play in their only chances during the third period.

BIG Rebound By Elvis

Let's continue the positive trends.

Merzlikins played his best game of the season and, again, it didn't seem likely after allowing the first goal of the game moments into the start. And the fact the Capitals lit Merzlikins up for six goals just three nights ago.

For the first time this season, Merzlikins allowed fewer than three goals in 13 starts, excluding the Nov. 15 start against the Philadelphia Flyers when he allowed two goals but did not finish the game due to injury. Per MoneyPuck, his goals saved above expected was 0.47. Kuemper's was 3.22.

The team in front helped out Elvis with a 5v5 xGF edge of 2.28-1.16 per Natural Stat Trick. Columbus limited the Capitals to its fewest shot-on-goal total this season (19). Washington's fewest shot total this season coming into play was 20 on Oct. 31 against the Carolina Hurricanes, a 3-2 shootout loss.

Columbus outhit Washington 32-29 while Washington dominated the face-off dot, 30-18.

One More Dance With Tampa

The Blue Jackets are in Tampa on Tuesday to take on the Lightning for the third and final time this season. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET at Amalie Arena. The Blue Jackets are 0-2-0 against the Lightning this season, losing 5-2 to the Bolts in the home opener on Oct. 14 and falling, 4-1, on Dec. 15 in Tampa.