Columbus Blue Jackets, Commentary, Elvis Merzlikins, John Tortorella, Long Read, Nick Foligno, Zach Werenski

Blue Jackets More Close-Knit Than Ever

It was a very historic night for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night for multiple reasons.

Elvis Merzlikins did it again. He pitched his fifth shutout in his last eight games to help the Blue Jackets to their 19th win in their last 26 games. He only had to make 16 saves in the 2-0 win, but he became the first rookie goaltender in over 80 years to record five shutouts in an eight-game span. You have to go back to the great Frank Brimsek in 1938-39 for the last occurrence of this. In all, just six goalies since 1929-30 have accomplished this (the forward passing era.)

And that’s not all. Merzlikins has won his last eight appearances. No Blue Jackets’ rookie goalie in franchise history has accomplished that. Only 10 rookie goalies in NHL history have recorded nine or more consecutive appearances with wins. Merzlikins’ next win will put him on that exclusive list.

But that wasn’t the only piece of history accomplished Friday. With his 17th goal of the season, Zach Werenski broke his own record and now holds the franchise record for goals in a season for a Blue Jackets defenseman. There’s still 27 games left in the season.

The Real Story

Things are going very well for the Blue Jackets as you can see. But if you think these are the top stories for those inside the locker room, I’ve got some news for you. It’s not. It’s not the way they operate.

While on an individual and on an accomplishment level, you have to acknowledge how amazing this run has been. Merzlikins went from an 0-4-4 start to now in the thick of the Calder conversation. And it seems anything Werenski is touching is turning into gold. That’s great. But these things are helping the team win.

That’s it. That’s the takeaway. These Blue Jackets are playing as a team. Not only are they playing as a team, they’re more close-knit than I can ever recall seeing them in the six years I’ve covered them.

In just walking around the locker room and talking to the players, you can sense something is different. Whether it’s Merzlikins or Werenski or any other Blue Jacket, the word team is mentioned at some point.

For head coach John Tortorella, it’s the same thing. It’s team. That’s the overwhelming theme. He’s gone out of his way to remind everyone that the recent Blue Jackets success is a result of everyone buying in and making important contributions.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella has been happy with the overall team play. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Merzlikins isn’t getting his shutouts if his defense isn’t locking it down in front of him. And when there’s been a breakdown, he’s bailed his defense out. It’s a two-way street that has made everyone better.

Here’s Werenski on the effort Friday by the team: “We played well. We really didn’t give up anything. It’s a team defense style that we play. It starts with our forwards backchecking and reloading which makes it easier on us. And when the big moments are there for Elvis he makes the saves. So it’s a team game and I think as a team we’ve been playing good defense.”

That’s seven mentions of “we” and “team” by Werenski. This is the very fabric defining this team.

Here’s Nick Foligno talking about how the game went. “We didn’t get frustrated. We didn’t change the way we played. We just stuck with it and found a way to get two big goals. That’s the way we’ve won these games. I’m proud of the guys for finding a way against a team that’s playing pretty free right now and didn’t have much to lose. That’s two big points for us.”

Again, you see lots of we and us. These Blue Jackets are not only winning, but they’re taking care of business while keeping a proper perspective. That’s the sign of a close-knit group. You can just feel it everywhere in the room. Foligno even took it a step further saying that players don’t want to be the one that lets the team down.

Here’s Tortorella postgame. “I liked the way we handled ourselves. It’s a tough game. (Jimmy) Howard played well. We just didn’t get frustrated and start cheating below the puck. We stayed above the puck and I think it helped us quite a bit as far as not giving up much at all.”

The Blue Jackets might not be able to sustain this kind of success, but they can sustain playing as a team no matter what’s thrown at them. If there’s something to be excited about as a Blue Jackets’ fan, it’s that playing as a team is not a cliche for them. It’s the way they do business. They’ve never been more close-knit as a result.

Columbus Blue Jackets Zach Werenski
Zach Werenski credits his teammates for helping him get the job done. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Side Dishes

  • Werenski as mentioned scored his 17th goal of the season on an amazing sequence. The Red Wings were being called for a delayed penalty. But the Blue Jackets held possession for the next 1:35. At the end of it, Werenski buried it after a great play from Foligno. Had Werenski ever been part of a delayed penalty like that before lasting 1:35? “No. I knew it was a long time. I didn’t know how long it was. You can play free hockey like that because when they touch the puck it’s a whistle so we were just making plays. It was a great play by Fliggy. It was an easy play for me.”
  • Speaking of Foligno, he was outstanding. He setup Werenski’s goal. But he made an impact all night. Here’s Tortorella on Foligno: “Nick’s had an inconsistent year. But since we’ve put him with Luc (Dubois) and Bjorky (Bjorkstrand), I think it’s helped his game and I think he’s helped their game. He was kind of in between in my mind on where he was in our lineup. We put him there and I think he’s grabbed a hold of that position, the left-wing on that line.”
  • According to NST in all situations, the Blue Jackets held an edge in expected goals 5.62-1. Jimmy Howard was the reason the Red Wings stayed in the game. Although the Blue Jackets dominated the metrics, they had to grind through this game. It again reminds you that no game is easy in the NHL.
  • By far the best moment of the night was when the Blue Jackets recognized 10 year old Charlie Cook pregame. You can watch his touching story below.

Charlie was told he didn’t have any chance to live. Doctors told his parents he wouldn’t be able to walk on his own. He’s now on his way to being an independent hockey player. This was the perfect way to reflect the true meaning of “Hockey is For Everyone.” The Blue Jackets introduced Charlie to the sellout crowd and got the loudest cheer of the night. He got to skate to the players and stood with them during the anthem. Everything about this moment was perfect.

  • The Blue Jackets are right back at it Saturday night against a much tougher opponent in the Colorado Avalanche. This should be a very high-tempo game from puck drop and one the Blue Jackets should easily be up for. They’re looking for their 20th win in 27 tries with points in 25 of those games. Don’t look now, but the Blue Jackets enter Saturday just two points back of Pittsburgh for second in the Metro.

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