After the Blue Jackets won in Detroit on Saturday to end a 10-game losing streak, coach Brad Larsen reminded his team it was only one game.
Larsen reiterated that message Monday morning before the Blue Jackets hosted the New York Rangers to emphasize that a win will not be a panacea to the Blue Jackets’ seasonal woes.
But from the first seconds of Monday’s 3-1 defeat at Nationwide Arena, it was clear the message hadn’t got through. Columbus wasn’t blown away on the scoreboard, but the Rangers’ methodical, constant puck cycling did much damage as they wore down the Blue Jackets at every turn.
“I couldn’t find a guy I liked,” Larsen said. “It was that hard. I don’t know how we could play two, two and a little bit as well in the Detroit game and then just come out — no one had gas. Nobody had energy. We had a day off no excuse for that – we looked like we got in at 4am, I have no idea why.
Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad opened the scoring at 12:39 of the first period with a shot from the top of the left circle from the onslaught that hit the inside of the far post and netted behind goalkeeper Elvis Merzlikins. Late in the opening frame, Barclay Goodrow doubled the Rangers’ lead with a power-play goal he carried past Merzlikins from the net front after K’Andre Miller’s spot shot sailed through the Blue Jackets’ penalty takers.
The Rangers beat the Blue Jackets 14-4 in the first period and led 32-7 in shot attempts.
The second period showed a marginal improvement for the Blue Jackets — an improvement in the sense that they were overshot by just four and gave up just eight more shot attempts than they managed. Rangers added a third goal to their total when Vitali Kravtsov sent the puck past Merzlikins from the front door at 11:47 of the second period.
Andrew Peeke stopped Jaroslav Halak’s bid for a shutout just 1:21 into the third period by firing a shooting rod down from high position that was fed by Gustav Nyquist. The Blue Jackets finally found some life mid-period, but it was far too late to beat the flat effort of the previous 40 minutes.
“We didn’t check and gave up too much ice to play on,” Boone Jenner said. “They brought it to us that way. They checked a little bit better and got some chances in the third, but it’s difficult when you throw yourself into a hole like that.”
The Blue Jackets have a quick turnaround after Monday’s game as they travel to Nashville on Tuesday to face the Predators.
“We’ll see how we react to that,” said Larsen. “We’re playing another really good team tomorrow. We have to overcome that inconsistency if we just hope that the teams won’t play well.”
Elvis Merzlikin’s lone “bright spot” for Blue Jackets
Merzlikins has often said he prefers games where he has a solid workload from the start, but he may have regretted that stated preference on Monday. Rangers had just one shot on goal in the first 3:26 but had five shot attempts and kept the puck in the offensive zone for almost two minutes in the first four minutes of the game.
According to Money Puck’s expected goals model, Rangers had 4.14 expected goals in all situations, meaning Merzlikin’s 1.14 goals exceeded expectations as he made 30 saves on 33 shots.
“I think Elvis was our best player tonight,” said Peeke. “He kept us in check throughout the game. He made some crucial saves at key moments. If it hadn’t been for him tonight, things could have been a little different.”
Larsen struggled to find a single skater whose performance he liked, but he didn’t have the same trouble with Merzlikins.
“He was good,” said Larsen. “He had to be good tonight. He was good for three periods. He was the only bright spot we had.”
To put it lightly, this season has been a challenge for Merzlikins. His emotionally charged nature means he’s always had a tendency for high highs and low lows, but for much of this season he didn’t look like the goalie the Blue Jackets envisioned when they signed him to a five-year contract. $27 million contract renewal in September 2021.
It’s too early to say Merzlikins has turned the tide, but progress has been undeniable in three of his last four starts. He seems calmer and more confident in all situations, whether it’s saving Zibanejad with a dramatic kick or playing the puck across the ice to start a breakout for the Blue Jackets.
Monday’s game dropped Merzlikins to a season-long 5-12-0, but without his performance in the crease, a challenging night for the Blue Jackets would have been even rougher.
Cole Sillinger scratched healthy for the second straight year
Second-year forward Cole Sillinger was a healthy scratch for the second straight season on Monday. After 16 goals and a total of 31 points as a rookie, Sillinger’s second season was much more difficult. In 38 games, Sillinger has scored just two goals and has seven points overall.
“He looks like a less confident player to me,” said Larsen ahead of Monday’s game. “Last year he had some bragging rights. With production usually comes boasting. Sometimes when you don’t score you think about it. you freeze. The pucks that come off your band are usually right on your band and you set that puck. How many times has he come down the wing and he gets a pass and he just rolls off his stick end? Those are the things that gnaw at you as a player.
Despite his strong rookie season, Sillinger went into the offseason with the attitude that he needed to earn his place on the team once camp was over. A concussion early in training camp kept him away for several days and the missed time seemed to throw him off balance early in the season.
It was not until mid-November that he scored his first goal of the season, and two games later he scored his second. But since then he has picked up just two points in his last 22 games and while his work ethic has never been questioned, his ability to perform has declined to the point where Larsen felt it necessary to temporarily remove him from the line-up.
“It’s part of his growth,” said Larsen. “We’ve had a lot of talks. … I think it will serve him well. I do. I’m not worried about him. I’m not worried I think he has a tremendous future with this organization, a little bump in the road.”
While Sillinger watched his second straight game from the press box, Larsen didn’t field Mathieu Olivier or Liam Foudy in Monday’s third half, so it’s possible he could retire as early as Tuesday. And when he comes back, Larsen believes he will have renewed energy.
“He’ll work his way out of there,” said Larsen. “We’ll help him with that. I expect he’ll be hungry when he comes back.”