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Blue Jackets start poorly, shut out Devils anyway

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Here’s what happened

New Jersey Devils v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

The Columbus Blue Jackets beat the New Jersey Devils 5-0 on Saturday night at Nationwide Arena. That may sound like a great game to watch. I mean, who wouldn’t love a shutout victory over a division opponent in front of a sellout crowd? Unfortunately it was another game where the Jackets played down to their opponent but still found a way to win. Consider that karma for the games where they played well and lost in regulation, and be happy with another two points.

Here are the players that stood out:

Elvis Merzlikins

Have to start here, of course. The Latvian Leviathan saved all 41 shots he faced to record his third shutout in his last four starts. Also noteworthy is that he has started all ten games since Joonas Korpisalo was injured on December 29. Will he start Sunday night at Madison Square Garden? I would assume so, though Elvis did admit in a postgame interview with Jody Shelley that he was tired.

It’s hard to bench a goalie who has had an All Star-quality performance this season, but I don’t see how Joonas Korpisalo can automatically return to the starter role while Elvis plays like this. With all credit to what Korpi has accomplished, Elvis seems to possess a level of athleticism that Korpi does not have. Elvis’ positioning has improved a lot over this stretch, as well. Perhaps the two goalies will push each other to play better, but I think it’s unfair to give Elvis any less than 50% of starts once Korpi gets back. At least, with Elvis playing like this, Korpi can be conservative with the timeframe of his recovery. Why rush it?

How can you not love this enthusiasm?

Cam Atkinson

Cam Atkinson had been heating up in December before getting injured, and through two games has picked up where he left off. No signs of rust here, with a goal and assist in his return on Thursday and another two goals and one assist tonight.

The first one was all Cam. David Savard hit a 9 iron from the goal line to the neutral zone, where Cam recovered it and skated it in. This is a shooter’s shot to score from that distance and position:

The second goal came immediately after a successful penalty kill (one of three on the night). Emil Bemstrom (who served the penalty for covering the puck, even though he was being crosschecked at the time) skated the puck in after coming out of the box, and fed a perfect pass to Cam:

In just two games, these two wingers have shown tremendous chemistry. Torts needs to keep this line together. Also deserving of credit is their center, Alexander Wennberg. We know he’s not a shooter, but Atkinson and Bemstrom certainly are and he can set them up. He can also cover them defensively so they can take chances offensively. For a team not producing much offense of late, it is critical that they create as many opportunities as they can.

Speaking of Wennberg, he joins his fellow Swede Bemstrom in having a four game point streak after recording a goal of his own tonight (that’s his third goal in four games. WHAT)

That made it 5-0 late in the second period and capped the scoring for the night.

Nick Foligno

The Captain scored his second goal in as many games. He didn’t have a stand-out game otherwise, but it’s nice to see him scoring after such a long drought. This goal made it 4-0 and was the second goal in 16 seconds. That led to Cory Schneider (recently recalled from an AHL demotion) being pulled.

Jakub Lilja

Lilja has been a target of conversation since Thursday. With Cam returning to the lineup, someone had to sit. For two games, that someone has been Sonny Milano. This seems curious, given the team’s recent inability to score many goals or win the shot battle, and Sonny’s obvious offensive ability. Before the Carolina game, Torts defended the move, citing the the chemistry of the fourth line, featuring Jakob Lilja.

That fourth line got hammered against Carolina, and tonight was no different. Lilja ended up with just 19.05% of the shot attempts at 5v5 (4 shot attempts for while he was on ice; 17 against). His linemate Kevin Stenlund was at 20% (8 for, 32 against). This line is not being effective, and something needs to change against the Rangers. I recognize the value of defensive forwards (like Wennberg at this best), but these guys aren’t effective on defense and not sparking offense, either. Put Milano back in there.

That being said, Lilja did manage to score a goal to make the game 3-0. I should have been happy about this, but my concern is that it will convince the coaching staff to give him another chance. Fortunately, Torts seemed unhappy with the team’s performance after the game, so I would expect some changes.

Credit where it’s due, this goal was a nice one. After a dump, they retained possession in the offensive zone and Harrington bombed it from the blue line towards the traffic in front of the net. Eric Robinson created havoc and Lilja scored off a rebound.

Final Thoughts

The first period was very bad, with the Jackets outshot 10-21 in all situations and trailing expected gals 0.61-1.68. Being up 1-0 was a steal. However, they did tighten things up defensively after that with a slight improvement offensively (four goals notwithstanding). Over the final 40 minutes, they led shots 21-20 and expected goals 1.64-1.61.

The power play is still awful. This vexes me. I am vexed. They can’t seem to keep the puck in the offensive zone. This would be somewhat forgivable if they were good once they got set up in formation, but once they’re in formation they still can’t create quality shots at a consistent rate.

Will Elvis start against the Rangers? We know Torts trusts him now, but he had to do a lot of work tonight. If he gets a break, will Matiss Kivlenieks make his debut, or a call-up from Cleveland? Veini Vehvilainen got pulled after two periods with the Monsters trailing 5-1.

The Jackets are 10-0-3 in their last 13 games against Eastern Conference teams. The win tonight elevated them to the first wild card position, with the Carolina Hurricanes falling out of the playoffs. If the Jackets beat the Rangers and the Hurricanes beat the Islanders in regulation, the Jackets will tie the third place Islanders in points (with the Jackets having played two more games).