A Look Into What's Fueling The Columbus Blue Jackets' Improved Play Of Late

By Will Chase on February 28, 2023 at 1:45 pm
Columbus Blue Jackets' Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo and Erik Gudbranson celebrate the win over the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Blue Jackets aren't going down quietly.

It's been a few weeks since the second half of the season started, and that time frame provides a large enough sample size to show what's helping fuel the Blue Jackets' improved play of late.

You had a good look at that over the weekend.

Head coach Brad Larsen said as much following Elvis Merzlikins' 41-save performance in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.

"This has been coming," Larsen said about Merzlikins' game improving. "This isn't like two in a row. We're now several games and dating back quite a ways so this is a real positive sign to watch him play with more confidence. He's got more swagger. He's looking much more like himself."

This leads to the main point the Blue Jackets are faced with over the final 22 games remaining on the schedule.

"You can't just throw away a year and say look forward to next year," Larsen said. "We still have a lot of games left.

"The fact that (Merzlikins)' starting to find his groove a little bit again and we have two goalies playing well, that's the scenario I was looking for all year long. So this a positive sign for both these guys."

With Joonas Korpisalo playing as well as he has all season, despite allowing five goals to the Edmonton Oilers in Saturday's 6-5 win where he made 42 saves, coupled with Merzlikins starting to find his game, it's not really a surprise that the Blue Jackets have come up with more wins of late.

Since Jan. 21,
All Situations
GP Record SV% GAA GSAx
Elvis Merzlikins 5 1-2-2 .907 3.00 1.31
Joonas Korpisalo 10 5-3-2 .919 2.96 6.1
GSAx Per Evolving-Hockey          

Merzlikins' surface numbers are ugly (6-15-2, .876, 4.14) but you can see the difference over the past five starts in which he's, oddly enough, allowed exactly three goals each time.

Below shows how far the tandem has come since the beginning of the season.

Oct. 12 through Jan. 20,
All Situations
GP Record SV% GAA GSAx
Elvis Merzlikins 20 5-13-0 .868 4.48 -24.09
Joonas Korpisalo 18 6-8-1 .908 3.28 3.9
GSAx Per Evolving-Hockey          

Since the second half for the Blue Jackets started on Feb. 10 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they are 4-3-2 and have as many points (10) as teams including the Vegas Golden Knights, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, and tonight's opponent, the Buffalo Sabres. They're five points off the pace of the Colorado Avalanche who leads the league in points post-All-Star Break.

Now don't get it twisted.

The Blue Jackets aren't suddenly a team on par with the upper echelon of the league. But as the point of this article illustrates, there’s something to be said for how much good or even league-average goaltending can provide for a team.

From Oct. 12 through Jan. 20, the Blue Jackets' xGA/60 was 2.82 (5v5). Since Jan. 21, it's 2.99 per Natural Stat Trick.

So it's not like the defense suddenly improved. But the goaltending duo of Korpisalo and Merzlikins has been better, allowing the Blue Jackets to stay in games and pull out the wins that weren't coming their way much of the season.

Improved goaltending is certainly key when your offense isn’t generating enough scoring as our Dan Dukart wrote about.

From the beginning of the season through Jan. 20, the Blue Jackets trended towards the bottom of the league (28th) with 2.15 GF/60 (5v5), and surprisingly enough, the Colorado Avalanche ranked just ahead of them (2.17). Although since Jan. 21, the Avalanche are where you'd figure them to be (12th, 2.94) and the Blue Jackets are 27th (2.16) with an xGF/60 of 2.45 (26th).

A playoff contender like the Wild, Columbus' most recent opponent, is 24th in 5v5 xGF/60 and dead last in GF/60 since Jan. 21. They're sixth in GA/60 (2.21) and fifth in xGA/60 (2.35).

Since the Blue Jackets resumed play following the All-Star Break, their 5v5 GA/60 is fifth in the league (2.04) while their xGA/60 is 27th (3.03).

Say what you want about the Blue Jackets starting to find success at this juncture of the season, but it's nice to see the goaltending position favor more toward a position of strength again.