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Thoughts on an OT loss in Minnesota

The Jackets earned two points in a tough road back-to-back

Columbus Blue Jackets v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Some assorted thoughts still kicking around my head after last night’s loss, and based on some of the spirited discussion in the gamethread (not being snarky there, I genuinely enjoy the argument. It was a civil back-and-forth with good arguments on both sides):

Elvis

Brad Larsen said that Elvis Merzlikins would get a lot of action over the rest of the season now that Joonas Korpisalo has had season-ending hip surgery. This has been put into action immediately, with Elvis getting the start in both legs of a road back-to-back. Both games went past regulation, though neither overtime was very long.

Despite the loss and three goals surrendered, this was one of Elvis’s stronger efforts of the season. He was perfect at 5v5, and that included a stretch during the first half of the third period where there were no whistles and Minnesota had near-constant possession in the offensive zone. At one point they rattled off 16 unanswered shot attempts. This heat map says a lot:

The first goal allowed was on the power play, and it was an absurd behind-the-net pass from Mats Zuccarello to Kirill Kaprizov. Elvis wasn’t expecting the shot to come from that side, and likely expected more defensive help there, as well, since he was cheating over to the side of the goal where the puck handler was (to protect against the wrap-around).

The game-tying goal was scored with an extra attacker on the ice. Per longtime Wild beat writer Michael Russo, this was the 18th time this season the Wild have scored with the extra attacker, which leads the league. Once again it was Kaprizov. That guy must be pretty good, huh?

The shot went through traffic and Elvis had no chance to see it.

The winner came in overtime, after the Jackets had a great chance of their own, but it triggered a rush the other way. That’s tends to happen in 3v3 OT. What shouldn’t happen is the defense allowing an opponent to get completely behind them to receive a pass in front of the goal. Dean Kukan was way out of position on this one. It never looks good when the goal is scored 5 hole, but at the same time Elvis was hung out to try.

Do you want the goalie to stop that? Yes. Do you blame the loss on him when he stopped 35 shots like that? I don’t think so.

Let’s be clear: Elvis is not infallible. In fact, he’s been pretty bad this season. A save percentage of .903 isn’t good enough, nor is a GAA of 3.39. Certainly there have been mitigating circumstances: injuries, grief, and atrocious team defense, just to name a few. But it’s time to set that aside and finish the season strong like he did last April, and hopefully carry that over into next season, when his new contract kicks in.

Toughness

Minnesota is an extremely physical team, and we learned in the first game against them that they make plays which go right up to the line of being dirty. The knee-to-knee hit by Marcus Foligno on Jake Voracek clearly crossed the line, and the league acknowledged that with a fine (Why wasn’t it a penalty on the ice? I’ll never know).

There has been a narrative from Columbus fans that we need players that would retaliate against hits like that, and prevent teams like Minnesota from making those types of plays in the future. I take issue with this for a few reasons:

  1. I’m not interested in retaliating in kind. I don’t want to see any players get hurt, whether they’re on our team or another team. If someone hurt Foligno, for example, it wouldn’t make Voracek uninjured.
  2. The best way to get revenge is on the scoreboard. Rather than throw down with Foligno in that last game, the best players were on the ice (aside from Voracek) and they scored the tying goal. If there had been a big brawl, several of those players could have been in the penalty box for the final minutes instead.

I’ll also note that after a chippy first forty minutes last night (nine combined penalties), there was just one penalty in the third period. When trailing by one, the Wild focused on playing hockey, not starting fights. The few times the Jackets regained possession, the Wild used clean physicality to get the puck back quickly.

3. Finally, I don’t know that the presence of goons actually prevents dirty hits. Nick Foligno is a guy that would stand up for his teammates, and that didn’t stop Nikita Kucherov for taking out Markus Nutivaara back in 2019. (He also didn’t retaliate against Kuch, or Stamkos; he focused on closing out the sweep). In that first game against the Wild, Boone Jenner and Max Domi played. Boone’s a hitter rather than a fighter, but Domi is certainly willing to drop the gloves. That didn’t matter.

You could have a Jody Shelley or Jared Boll on this team and it may make you feel good to see them bashing faces in, but we’d still have players hurt and in the meantime we’d be wasting our roster spot on a bad player. Does Florida or Tampa or Carolina have a guy like that? Does it get in the way of them winning?

Furthermore, while it’s true that the Jackets are at the bottom of the league in hits (18:80 hits/60, 29th in the league), Minnesota is only middle of the pack (22.38, 17th best). Ottawa leads in hits, but that’s because they rarely have the puck. (Nashville, Boston, Rangers, and Tampa round out the top 5, however)

Here’s the hit that had people upset last night. Jacob Middleton elevated into the hit so it looks higher than it needed to be, but the contact was to the chest so I don’t think it was a penalty. Zach Werenski’s face hit Middleton’s helmet as Z’s head whipped forward from the hit.

For what it’s worth, Oliver BJORKSTRAND — an unlikely source — did lay a big hit on Foligno.

Power play

With a chance to get an insurance goal, the Jackets had a power play halfway through the third period that resulted in no shot attempts, and very little time in the offensive zone.

Keep in mind that the Jackets had just played ten minutes of nonstop defense, they were on the back leg of a back-to-back against a rested team, and they were without their best player, Werenski. In 187:33 minutes of power play time this season with Werenski on the ice, the Jackets score 8.32 goals per 60 minutes, with 6.97 expected goals. In 107:51 of power play time without Werenski, that drops to 3.89 GF/60 and 4.8 xGF/60. So, the team generates much less without him and finishes worse as well.

You also have to give credit to Minnesota’s kill. They clogged the neutral zone and stood up strong at the blue line, preventing the Jackets from getting a clean entry. This has been an issue with our power play in past seasons, but this year I don’t think it’s solely a power play issue. In general, the 5v5 offense also struggles against teams that provide resistance in the middle of the ice, like Carolina. You need speed and skill to get through that, and sometimes that’s not even enough. Look at how Torts teams could beat more talented teams by playing that kind of defense.

What do we want from the final month?

Some fans have had a “burn it down” reaction to recent losses and I just don’t understand that. What did you expect from this season? It was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and no one should be surprised that the Jackets aren’t going to the playoffs. At the same time, most national experts predicted that they’d be at the bottom of the metro and one of the worst teams in the league like last season. Instead, they’re a .500 team. That puts them ahead of schedule!

Those who root for the team but expected them to be bad are actually bothered by the success, to a degree, because it means a worse draft position. As I’ve said before, this is the wrong mindset to take. You shouldn’t want to see this team lose, but when they do lose you should take comfort in knowing it improves their draft position.

The best case scenario in a game against a good opponent is that the Jackets play hard and keep it close but ultimately lose. The bulk of this team is players who are under team control beyond this season and are expected to be part of the long-term core of the team. If that core plays poorly, that’s a bad sign for the re-building plan. If they play well, then it’s a sign that there are good things to come. As Larsen said both before and after the game, the opponent and environment is similar to the playoffs. Next season at this time, we want to be fighting for a playoff spot. Going through this experience now should help this team next year. They can lose now, learn from it, and win this game next season.

The Jackets’ goals

Let’s highlight the two goals, since they were good ones.

The first one was credit to Jake Bean, but it was hard to tell at first which player touched it last. I love to see this kind of scrum in front of the net. Create chaos in front of the goalie and good things can happen.

I’d say this was Bean’s best game since returning from injury. Certainly the most noticeable. With Z out, he played 24:39. That was third most behind Gavrikov and Peeke. He led the team with five shots on goal.

The go-ahead goal late in the second was at 4v4 and came off the stick of Jake Voracek. That’s his fifth of the season! He’s heating up!

For more great Voracek content, be sure to check out the latest episode of Behind the Battle.

Up next

The Jackets are back home on Tuesday to play the Islanders. This kicks of a stretch of three straight home-and-home series against the Islanders, Bruins, and Flyers.