Elvis Merzlikins earns first shutout of season, leads Jackets to 3-0 win over Winnipeg

Bailey Johnson
The Columbus Dispatch
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski (8) scores a goal during the third period of the NHL game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

Zach Werenski picked his spot to perfection, or so the crowd at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday thought.

The Blue Jackets defenseman fired a shot from the bottom of the right faceoff circle that flew through a narrow window over Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck's shoulder and into the back of the net. It was the kind of narrow window that takes careful attention and high-level skill to hit.

And Werenski wasn't even looking at it.

"Honestly, I didn’t even look," Werenski said. "Just kind of a feel shot. Puck came to me. We were up by one, kind of middle of the period. We didn’t really have much going on that power play so I figured I’d shoot it. I was pretty low in the zone. I just closed my eyes and shot it."

The goal gave the Jackets a 2-0 lead in the third period and added some margin for error, though they didn't need it. Columbus went on to beat the Jets 3-0 and improve to 11-6-0 on the year.

Gregory Hofmann opened the scoring at 15:09 of the first period to put Columbus on top, but it took more than a full period for the Jackets to extend their lead — a nerve-wracking situation to be in, given the potential of Winnipeg's offense.

"That goal was huge, to give yourself a little breathing room," Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. "The timing of it. To get a two-goal lead is much different than one shot and they’re tied, right? They came through huge at the right time."

Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins appeared dialed in from the beginning and made several key saves in the opening minutes to keep the game scoreless. He finished with 36 saves on 36 shots for his first shutout of the year. 

With 3:33 left in the game, defenseman Andrew Peeke hit the empty net to seal the win and became the Jackets' 20th goal-scorer in 17 games. 

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins (90) blocks a goal attempt during the third period of the NHL game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

Elvis Merzlikins gets first shutout

Though the Jets entered the game on a three-game losing streak, the potential of their offense with goal-scorers like Kyle Connor can't be overlooked. And in the opening minutes of the game, it was Winnipeg that had the momentum and put continued pressure on the Jackets' defense.

"I think it could’ve gotten kind of out of hand there," Werenski said. "We weren’t playing bad by any means, but they had some chances and he made some really big saves to keep it 0-0. ... All throughout the game, it seemed like whenever they had a Grade A, he was right there to stop it. Seemed really calm in net tonight and that really helps a group. He was awesome."

Merzlikins wasn't pleased with his performance in his last two outings, particularly his last start on Saturday in Las Vegas. He saw Wednesday's game as an opportunity to return to the form he showed in the early part of the season, and he did just that on his way to his first shutout of the season.

"I had a chance to take a look at my statistics," Merzlikins said. "My goal is always to play .900 or .910 (save percentage), and the last two games I didn’t play that well. It was a bad game. Last day off I was just thinking, thinking more about how to come back on the performance at the start of the season. I just tried to dial into the game from the first minute and tried to focus on the game."

The fans at Nationwide Arena began chanting his name with about 90 seconds left, which Merzlikins appreciated — but he noted that the chant came a little early for his liking.

"That was a little too early," a smiling Merzlikins said. "Minute and a half? No, I don’t like that. One minute it’s too much, too many things can happen. Still, 20 seconds (left), there can happen a goal. I liked it, and I appreciate it."

A fight breaks out during the NHL game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets during the third period at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

Max Domi, the antagonist

In the third period, after a zone entry was called offside, forward Max Domi continued to carry the puck and tucked it into the net next to Hellebuyck — a massive no-no in the NHL's unwritten rules. 

As Domi undoubtedly expected, a scrum erupted in the corner of the ice, with Domi at the center. And even once the players had been separated by the officials, that wasn't enough for Domi, who slipped out of a hold to re-engage with Jets forward Evgeny Svechnikov. 

Domi dropped the gloves and had Svechnikov on the ice in a matter of seconds. As a result of his actions, Domi was tagged with a double minor penalty for roughing and Svechnikov was sent off for slashing.

"Obviously, (Domi) knew what he was doing," Werenski said. "I think the second he put it in, he just turned around waiting for someone to come at him. I think that fires him up. When he’s going, and he is right now, that’s how he plays the game."

Domi is the kind of player who feeds on emotion and likes to be physically engaged. If that means playing the villain at times, Larsen is willing to let Domi be Domi — as long as he doesn't cross the line.

"I don’t want to get in the way of his emotions," Larsen said. "He’s one of those guys who I think can handle it, but there’s the line. ... You know it’s coming. You put it in the empty net. We’ve gotta be smart in those situations. He can be a little bit of an antagonist sometimes."

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Adam Boqvist (27) looks for a teammate during the NHL game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

Adam Boqvist added to top power play unit

The loss of Patrik Laine to an oblique strain leaves a hole on the Jackets' top power play unit. There isn't a single player that can slot into his spot and replace his full role — there are few players in the NHL who can shoot the puck like Laine — so the Jackets have tried multiple options in recent games.

Wednesday, Larsen turned to defenseman Adam Boqvist, bucking the trend toward four-forward power play units in the hopes that Boqvist's skill with the puck would be beneficial.

A right shot like Laine, Boqvist has experience playing the point, where defensemen typically set up on the power play, but is also comfortable working out of the half wall. That allows Columbus to move around and switch roles to confuse the opposing penalty kill.

Werenski's goal in the third period came on the power play, a sign that the new-look unit might be the answer the Jackets have been looking for.

"The first power play, I was on the other half wall," Werenski said. "That power play, I was on my one-timer half wall. We were kind of all over the place, and I think as a penalty kill it’s hard to defend that way, when there’s a lot of movement up top and a lot of movement within your power play.

"That was the main reason we decided to go that route. It was our first game with it, so still some work to do on it, but I thought for the most part we generated some chances and had some good power plays."

The Blue Jackets celebrate a win 3-0 after the NHL game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Winnipeg Jets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.

Blue Jackets three stars

First star

Elvis Merzlikins, goaltender

Merzlikins stopped all 36 shots he faced to earn his first shutout of the season and the eighth of his career. Per Natural Stat Trick, Merzlikins allowed zero goals on 2.59 expected goals in all situations for the Jets. 

Second star

Zach Werenski, defenseman

Werenski played a game-high 26:22 and picked up his fifth goal of the season on the power play in the third period to give the Jackets some much-needed breathing room. He also blocked three shots. 

Third star

Max Domi, forward

Domi fed Hofmann off the rush for the game's opening goal and notched his sixth assist of the season in just his seventh game. But perhaps his most impactful play sparked a scrum in the third period, which brought energy to both benches and electrified the crowd at Nationwide Arena. 

bjohnson@dispatch.com

@baileyajohnson_