HARD HITS: Blue Jackets prove you don’t need a high priced goalie to have success

AP Photo credit Russell LaBounty of USA Today via Getty Images

Like most observers, I didn’t have many expectations for the Blue Jackets. They lost star forward Artemi Panarin to the Rangers. Let Sergei Bobrovsky go to his destination of Florida. They knew they would lose Matt Duchene, who chose the Predators. Even Ryan Dzingel changed teams by opting for Carolina.

What exactly did Columbus have left? Entering the season, they didn’t know about their goalie situation. Joonas Korpisalo was a backup and Latvian import Elvis Merzlikins was unproven.

The way it started, it looked like it would be a long year for veteran coach John Tortorella. They predictably weren’t scoring much either. It was a hard adjustment going from puck wizard Panarin and rental Duchene to relying on young center Pierre-Luc Dubois, defense tandem Seth Jones and Zach Werenski along with remaining finishers Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Making matters worse, the Blue Jackets had injuries to key players. Veteran leader Brandon Dubinsky hasn’t played a game. Defenseman Ryan Murray can’t stay healthy. Josh Anderson went from a good goalscorer to a non-factor before going down. Then both Atkinson and Bjorkstrand were out for a while.

The biggest injury was one to Korpisalo, who was finally hitting his stride as the starter. It forced Tortorella to go to Merzlikins in net. Having struggled mightily to that point, there seemed to be doubt about whether the unknown they took as a 20-year old could take over and keep the suddenly resurgent team afloat.

Not only has he done that. Now, the quirky Elvis is a unique personality and crowd favorite at home games due to his fun celebrations following wins. He recently had his first three career shutouts over a four game stretch. The winning has continued with his 27 saves in a come from behind 4-3 home victory over the slumping Winnipeg Jets extending their winning streak to six at the All-Star break.

Two more goals from Bjorkstrand including another game-winner in the third period put Columbus back into the first wildcard with 62 points in 51 games. One up on the Hurricanes for the second wildcard and two up on the Flyers. They’re five clear of the underachieving Maple Leafs, whose play has dipped after such a nice turnaround under new coach Sheldon Keefe. If the season ended today, Toronto would miss the playoffs. They trail Bobrovsky’s new team the Panthers by four points for third place in their division.

Here’s an interesting fact. Prior to taking over the Columbus net as starter, Merzlikins had yet to record a win in his first 10 appearances (8 starts). He was forced into action versus Chicago on Dec. 29. The crazy overtime where Toronto messed up on the clock that resulted in a torn meniscus for an unlucky Korpisalo in a crushing shootout loss where Tortorella fumed. The clock issue cost his team an overtime win and his goalie. He predictably was fined by the clueless NHL.

Merzlikins took over as the number one goalie on New Year’s Eve. He posted 36 saves in a home win over the Panthers. Since Dec. 31, he’s 9-2-0 with a 1.65 goals-against-average (GAA) and .951 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable for a first-year player who took over a tough situation. It’s why he should get consideration for the Calder Trophy. The leading Rookie of The Year candidate remains Colorado defenseman Cale Makar. The chief competition is coming from Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes and emerging Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik. Rangers defenseman Adam Fox is a darkhorse. Keep an eye on Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov. He’s 15-2-1 with a 2.06 GAA and .927 save percentage plus a shutout in 19 games (16 starts).

With both Atkinson and Bjorkstrand back delivering the two primary right shots that can give a boost to the offense, things are falling into place for Columbus. They’re also getting contributions from rookie Emil Bemstrom, veteran forward Gus Nyquist, captain Nick Foligno, center Alex Wennberg, center Boone Jenner, defenseman David Savard and rookie blueliner Vladislav Gavrikov.

It’s typical of a Tortorella coached team to find key contributors that nobody would ever expect to do anything. It’s easy to forget what a job he did coaching the Rangers during ’11-12 to the East’s top seed. Even with established stars Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, they weren’t supposed to wind up where they did. As much as Henrik Lundqvist carried them with his best season to win the Vezina, it was getting the most out of Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust that made that team so good.

Ditto for then rookie Carl Hagelin. Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky were good players along with Artem Anisimov. Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider were key parts too. But nobody figured he could turn Dan Girardi into a shutdown defenseman alongside Ryan McDonagh while discovering how valuable Anton Stralman was along with the established Marc Staal. Had Mike Sauer not had his career ended by Dion Phaneuf, maybe that team wins a Cup. Without him, they weren’t as tough. Glen Sather didn’t make any upgrades either. It cost them.

A year later after Dubinsky and Anisimov were sacrificed for Rick Nash in a blockbuster trade with Columbus ironically enough, Tortorella was out of a job due to Lundqvist’s criticism following a second round defeat to a much better Bruins roster. Funny how that works. At the time, Lundqvist was a year away from free agency. He sounded noncommittal. That was the end for Torts. He got a raw deal.

It all worked out for the Blueshirts, who hired the polar opposite of Tortorella by bringing in the much easier going and offensive minded Alain Vigneault. He went on to be very successful on Broadway guiding the ’13-14 roster that added Martin St. Louis for Callahan, to its only Stanley Cup appearance since winning in ’93-94. After falling short against the Kings, they won a President’s Trophy in ’14-15. However, it ended somberly by getting shutout at home in Game Seven by the Lightning in a bizarre Conference Final. It went downhill from there.

Tortorella made a mistake by taking the Vancouver job after they dismissed Vigneault, who had similar results. But it had run its course. Both coaches joked about replacing each other. However, it was apparent that AV fit in New York City a lot better than Torts did in Vancouver. A Chris Kreider hat trick against his former coach in a November meeting seemed to break the Canucks. The Sedins were overused by the reliant Tortorella, whose shot blocking style was a bad fit. They wore down. He had a near fight with Calgary coach Bob Hartley in a brawl that turned ugly. After missing the playoffs, he was fired along with top assistant Mike Sullivan, who went onto coach the Penguins to consecutive Cups.

Tortorella wound up in Columbus taking over for Todd Richards. Since then, they’ve made the postseason in the last three seasons. The 0-7-0 start in ’15-16 didn’t help Torts get them back to the playoffs initially. But their recent success which included the franchise winning its first playoff series by stunning the league-leading Lightning in a sweep last Spring, was a big step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, despite going all in with the Duchene addition and Dzingel along with Panarin, they were soundly defeated by the Bruins in the second round. When all three skaters departed including the Bread Man along with Bobrovsky, things looked bleak. They weren’t expected to compete for the playoffs.

Nobody told Tortorella or his team. He reminded them early in training camp that whoever made the roster was going to play. They didn’t want players who didn’t want to be there. Something GM Jarmo Kekalainen reminded them as well.

It was the right approach and attitude. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. At 27-16-8 with 62 points, they’ve earned respect. They are right there in playoff position with 31 games left. They still have good players who are becoming leaders on and off the ice.

It’ll be interesting to see what Tortorella decides once Korpisalo is ready to return. He was expected to miss four to six weeks. So, he should be nearing a return once February rolls around.

Of all the great stories, the Jackets are the best one of the first half. We’ll see if that continues following the long break.

Body Checks

In a hectic year that’s already seen seven coaches fired, we could have one more before hockey returns next week. After playing well and probably overachieving considering the state of their defense, Winnipeg has lost four in a row. The tough one goal defeat on Wednesday night at Columbus was the only game of the four they were competitive. The other three losses came by three goals or more.

In fact, they’ve dropped six of seven and enter the break with 54 points. That’s still only three out of the wildcard and four behind Dallas for third place in a competitive Central Division. The Blackhawks have caught them in points with the Wild two behind and Predators at 51 points. If they do replace Paul Maurice, the schedule won’t be no picnic. The first four are against Boston, St. Louis, Nashville and at St. Louis. Nine of the first 10 games in the second half are at home including a six-game homestand versus Ottawa, Chicago, the Rangers, Sharks, Chicago again and the Kings.

The Jets have gotten good production from top scorers Mark Schiefele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Nik Ehlers and former Ranger Neal Pionk. However, they need more out of Blake Wheeler. He hasn’t been as consistent. Fifteen goals and 43 points are respectable. But a minus-10 rating isn’t. The defense gets very thin after Josh Morrissey and Pionk. They’re relying on Luca Sbisa and Dmitry Kulikov. Tucker Poolman is in his second year and has been out with a lower body injury as has depth D Nathan Beaulieu. They have been without Bryan Little for most of the season due to a perforated eardrum and vertigo. The forward depth isn’t strong.

Despite getting mostly solid netminding from starter Connor Hellebuyck, they rank 24th in goals against and 28th in penalty killing. Even the offense hasn’t been consistent with the Jets 19th in goals for and 15th on the power play. If they don’t improve in these key areas, no playoffs in Winnipeg. In my original prediction, I had them just missing with the Coyotes beating them out. Arizona might do better than that. They’re currently tied with Edmonton, Calgary and Vegas with 57 points. One behind first place Vancouver in the crazy Pacific.

The Canucks are interesting because they weren’t expected to contend. Elias Pettersson is a star center already and Brock Boeser continues to establish himself along with captain Bo Horvat. JT Miller has made a big difference playing on that top line as the net front presence. He’s fit in much better than the Lightning, who gave him away despite a reasonable contract. Jacob Markstrom has finally become a reliable starter and is in his first All-Star Game. Quinn Hughes continues to be among the top rookies to boost a defense that includes Alex Edler and Tyler Myers. Jake Virtanen is now a solid secondary scorer and former King Tanner Pearson has been a pleasant surprise. If they can get more out of grinders Antoine Roussel and Micheal Ferland if he returns, that could give them a boost. Coach Travis Green has done a good job and could also be a Jack Adams candidate.

The Hart race is too close to call. While most observers including his peers put leading scorer Connor McDavid at the top, it’s hard to see him as the best option if the Oilers don’t make it. He’s a wunderkind that flies like a jet for highlight reel goals at lightning speed the likes we’ve never seen. If he played in the wide open era of the 80’s, McDavid would challenge for 200 points like Gretzky and Lemieux. He’s that special. Having Leon Draisaitl as a sidekick makes them fun to watch. However, it’s hard to believe they still may not have enough to make the playoffs. Zack Kassian fits in on the top line due to his size and grit. James Neal has been a good addition, but has cooled off. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins remains a overlooked two-way player who can be trusted in key situations. Secondary scoring is an issue along with goaltending. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are probably one of the worst tandems in the game. The defense relies heavily on Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom. They might need a trade.

If we’re being honest about MVP:

1. Nathan MacKinnon 30-42-72

2. Connor McDavid 27-49-76

3. David Pastrnak 37-33-70

4. Artemi Panarin 26-42-68

5. John Carlson 13-47-60

Alex Ovechkin seems to get better with age. Well, maybe not. But the electrifying Russian superstar finished the first half in style by scoring eight goals in three games. That included consecutive hat tricks against the Devils and in a come from behind win at the Islanders. So, he went from 26 to 34 goals that quickly to put himself right back in the Rocket Richard race. He’s tied with Auston Matthews for second, trailing Pastrnak by three. Nobody has won more Richards than the Great Eight. Even better, he passed both Mario Lemieux and tie Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time with 692 goals. Mark Messier is next with 694. By the time the season concludes, Ovechkin could pass Mike Gartner (708) for seventh all-time. At 34, he shows no signs of slowing down. Can he catch Gretzky? The Great One finished with an NHL record 894 goals. If he can stay healthy and produce at least 40 goals a season over the next five years, Ovechkin would break the record. There’s still a long way to go.

A team that’s flying under the radar in the East are the Penguins. Despite not having Sidney Crosby until a few games ago and being without top finisher Jake Guentzel, they’re up to 67 points. Only four behind the Capitals. Bryan Rust has become a legit scoring threat hitting 21 goals with 43 points while playing with Evgeni Malkin. In 37 games, Malkin quietly has 50 points (15-35-50). He really picked it up when Crosby was out. Then Sid came back and immediately put up eight points in his first four contests highlighted by a four point night in a win over Minnesota. Even now, he reminds us why he’s still considered the best player. Don’t crown McDavid yet. Crosby is better overall and is a proven winner who’s done it all.

This time, it’s the steady play of Tristan Jarry in net. He’s supplanted Matt Murray as the number one goalie for the Pens. With Murray a two-time Cup winner, they have one of the best tandems. Maybe only the Bruins featuring Tuukka Rask and Jaro Halak are better in the Conference. The Isles tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss is up there too. So too will be Columbus once Korpisalo returns to team with Merzlikins. The Caps boast rookie Samsonov and veteran Braden Holtby. These teams have an edge on the Lightning who rely heavily on last year’s Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Speaking of the Bolts, they’re a hard team to read. They’ve recovered nicely from a bad start and rank second with 62 points in the Atlantic to trail Boston by eight. However, Nikita Kucherov hasn’t dominated like last year and Brayden Point has been inconsistent. While both Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are over a point-per-game, it’s been the contributions of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat that have made a difference. Their secondary scoring has helped Tampa become more balanced offensively. Both Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde have underachieved. Former Blues Cup hero Pat Maroon has been a solid addition. So has Kevin Shattenkirk even though his production has tailed off. Victor Hedman remains an elite defenseman who can do it all. Mikhail Sergachev has shown improvement in Year Three. Ryan McDonagh has focused on defense. They still have as much talent and depth as anyone. But the pressure will be squarely on Vasilevskiy to deliver.

At what point does Bobrovsky remind Florida of the goalie who won a pair of Vezinas with Columbus? If they’re gonna make the playoffs and beat out Toronto, they need the vintage Bob.

The Blues still look like the class of the NHL. Even without top sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, they’re rolling with the best record out West. David Perron is a point-per-game player to pace them in scoring with 49 points. One of five Blues with at least 40 points or more. That includes Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and Jaden Schwartz. Boasting good depth in underrated forwards Robert Thomas, Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford, St. Louis should be tough to beat. Veteran Tyler Bozak plays a secondary role. The D remains big and tough featuring Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn, Jay Bouwmeester and Justin Faulk. Jordan Binnington has proven he isn’t a fluke. Jake Allen is a good backup. Yes. This team is capable of a repeat.

The top threats likely will come from division rivals Colorado and Dallas. The shame of it is you could have another one of those second round scenarios where the two best Western teams face off. All due to the crazy playoff format.

Of the teams bunched up in the Pacific, I like Arizona. They’re down to Adin Hill for now in net with Antti Raanta getting healthy. Once Darcy Kuemper returns, they’ll boast the best goalies. Adding Taylor Hall as a rental should help. I have them as a playoff team and believe they’ll win that division. I don’t believe Vegas has the right mix due to a weakened blueline that’s hurt Marc-Andre Fleury. I’m also not a big believer in the Flames due to the defense and goaltending. Vancouver could challenge if they are ready. Edmonton needs to make a trade.

Can the Blackhawks make it? Probably not. But Patrick Kane is again proving why he’s one of the game’s biggest stars. He recently became the fastest American born player to 1,000 career points. Jonathan Toews has rebounded from a slow start. Kubalik has put himself in the rookie convo with 21 goals. Robin Lehner has proven he isn’t a product of Barry Trotz by posting a .921 save percentage on a defensively challenged team. Corey Crawford is the backup in another tandem. They need more goals from Alex DeBrincat and Brandon Saad. Dylan Strome should be a key once he returns. Is there enough defense with an aging Duncan Keith still logging big minutes while getting some help from Erik Gustafsson and Olli Maatta? Adam Boqvist is a rookie and third overall pick Kirby Dach has run into similar issues as Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.

The Rangers must make key decisions on who to keep. Is Chris Kreider a goner or is it wiser to keep him due to what he brings? It largely depends on where they are a few weeks from now and what teams are offering. Not unproven prospects or low first round picks. They need a good roster player plus more. Ryan Strome seems like a good fit playing center with Panarin. If they subtract him, then only Mika Zibanejad is left that’s dependable on face-offs. They rank near the bottom due to the inexperience of Filip Chytil and Brett Howden. Center is already weak. They might want to hold onto Strome, who has proven himself under David Quinn.

Tony DeAngelo is probably the hardest one. All that production at such a cheap price. He won’t be that this summer. Do they really think Nils Lundkvist at 20 will be NHL ready to replace DeAngelo for a much more affordable salary? They’ll lose a lot of offense if they go that route. You can’t ask for draft picks if you move him either. I’d love to see DeAngelo stay and go into next year with the him, Fox and Trouba on the right side.

There’s also the goalie quandary. What to do with Alex Georgiev with Igor Shestyorkin looking ready. That Henrik Lundqvist contract is a nightmare. At least it’s only one more year like Marc Staal, who brings more value at this point. Tyler Wall is a Hobey Baker candidate too. Goalie is the least of their issues.

You won’t find many worse fourth lines than what the Rangers have. Even Greg McKegg has only a goal and three assists despite being a solid worker. You’re telling me Lias Andersson couldn’t do that? John Davidson has been in communication with Andersson, who’s gotten the okay to play back home in Sweden. That’s positive.

Will the Sabres ever make the playoffs again? Or are they going to continue to waste emerging star Jack Eichel? They still lack a true number one goalie. Linus Ullmark hasn’t proven himself. Carter Hutton has been a bust. In many ways, Buffalo is a lot like Edmonton except Eichel isn’t McDavid because nobody is. They don’t have a Draisaitl, but Sam Reinhart is good. They definitely miss rookie Victor Olofsson. Jeff Skinner had been a colossal disappointment in the first year of a huge contract. Marcus Johansson has six goals in 42 games. Yikes. They also had to send down Casey Mittlestadt. Buffalo continues to have a logjam on D that features Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen. Expect some moves soon.

So, Mat Barzal is the current NHL’s fastest skater. Yet didn’t see a shift during the third period of the Islanders 4-2 win over the Rangers. He set up two goals and is their best player. Trotz disciplined the talented third-year center. The issue is he’s coming up on Group II free agency this summer. The Isles have the advantage due to Barzal having no arbitration rights. They can either bridge him or go long-term. I think I’d prefer the latter if I’m an Isles fan with the franchise over a year away from moving into their new arena at Belmont.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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