Arizona Coyotes, Brad Larsen, Columbus Blue Jackets, Elvis Merzlikins, Matiss Kivlenieks, Oliver Bjorkstrand

Blue Jackets Honor Memory of Matiss Kivlenieks With Huge Win

Elvis Merzlikins called it his most important game. Brad Larsen called it both a special and strange night. But many years from now and beyond, Thursday night’s Blue Jackets’ home opener won’t soon be forgotten.

A total of 13 Blue Jackets’ scored at least one point in their decisive 8-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes. Oliver Bjorkstrand recorded his first four-point game of his NHL career with two goals and two assists while Max Domi just four months removed from shoulder surgery added a goal and two assists.

However this night will be remembered for one thing. This was the night the Blue Jackets lifted number 80 Matiss Kivlenieks into the rafters for this season.

Honoring Matiss Kivlenieks’ Memory

In an emotional pregame ceremony, members of Kivlenieks’ family came to Nationwide Arena to participate in the banner raising and in a ceremonial puck drop. Kivlenieks’ mother, step father and sister were there. Once the banner was lifted to the rafters, the puck was dropped with captain Boone Jenner and Arizona’s Andrew Ladd at center taking in the moment.

This moment was emotional for everyone involved. Nationwide Arena was packed with fans taking in the moment. Then the players got to witness this after the introductions were completed. Merzlikins said that he started to get emotional as soon as he saw the family on the ice.

Once the ceremony was over, it was time to play a game. It was clear that the Blue Jackets were highly motivated. But could they control their emotions and focus on the task at hand? It only took 40 seconds to realize the Blue Jackets were focused. That’s all they needed to jump up 1-0.

Domi threw the puck towards the net on his backhand and Alex Texier tips home the first goal of the new season. It was at this moment that you could tell this was going to be a special night. Everyone wanted to honor Kivlenieks the right way. Scoring eight goals certainly accomplished that task. How appropriate was it that they scored eight times for number 80?

Merzlikins Meets the Emotional Challenge

Merzlikins especially wanted to honor his fallen friend. After the game, he said he didn’t want to embarrass Kivlenieks’ number 80. By stopping 36 of 38 shots on the night, he certainly lived up to what he wanted to accomplish.

“It was a hard start,” Merzlikins said. “But I’m happy and proud of myself that mentally I could handle it. And obviously the team, they’re helping me. They (are) helping me right from the start.”

“We knew that they were going to push because they’re a really fast team. All team, the forwards, defensemen, everybody they knew how important the game was for me so they were there for me.”

Merzlikins then admitted that every single Blue Jackets’ player told him that they were proud of him. This included several of his teammates sharing a hug together. It was a perfect end to a very emotional night.

The memory of Kivlenieks will never be forgotten. His number 80 now hangs in the rafters. The number 80 will be on the ice behind the nets for Saturday’s game against the Seattle Kraken. And the players will wear a number 80 sticker on their helmets all season long.

The pain is still very real. But for one night, a life was celebrated. The Blue Jackets honored Kivlenieks by going out and taking care of business while making sure his memory lives on forever.

Matiss Kivlenieks Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets honored Matiss Kivlenieks the best way they knew how to on Thursday. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As For the Game Itself

Yes, the score may have finished 8-2, but that doesn’t mean the Blue Jackets were perfect. They were far from that actually. Here’s Larsen speaking postgame.

“It was a tough game,” Larsen said. “You’ve gotta be careful. I don’t think we played that well. I really don’t. We found ways to score and that’s awesome. I think we have such a better game in us.”

“Elvis was really good for us. Who knows where that was going to go with him? He was very emotional with Kivi’s things. Yeah it was a strange 8-2 win. (We’re) happy to get the win no question but we have lots of work ahead of us here.”

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The Blue Jackets were opportunistic with their chances and were able to score in bunches. But there were stretches of the game when the Coyotes dominated possession and forced the Blue Jackets to chase the game. That’s what makes Merzlikins’ performance more notable. He was outstanding under intense pressure not only from the Coyotes but from the emotions of the pregame ceremony.

The Blue Jackets will have to tighten things up. At least after one game, it’s easy to see why many think the team will be involved in more 5-4, 6-5 type of games instead of 2-1 or 3-2. There were chances galore. The difference was the play in net. Merzlikins did his job. Carter Hutton wished he had several of those goals back.

Related: 3 Takeaways from the Coyotes 8-2 Loss to the Blue Jackets

But when the dust settled, the end result was the Blue Jackets are now 1-0 on the season. They now prepare for their next game Saturday night against the Kraken at Nationwide Arena. It might be just one game. But for everyone involved, the memory of that game will last forever.

Three Things

  • Here’s Cole Sillinger’s debut. One assist, three shots on goal, two hits, a block and 80% at the faceoff dot (4/5) in 13:37 of ice time. He looked like he belonged out there. It’s just one game but we see why the team elected to keep on the roster to start. He looks like he’s been in the league 5-6 years already. He has a rare maturity for someone his age. If he plays like he did Thursday in this next stretch of games, he might stay for good.
  • How about that power play? The Blue Jackets went 2/3 on the man advantage on the night keeping up the pace from the preseason. Bjorkstrand connected in the first while Werenski scored from distance in the third. The look and the feel are different. It comes down to personnel. There’s more than one dangerous option. They easily could break 20% for the season if things fall right. Thursday only showed the potential even more.
  • Yegor Chinakhov made the roster but did not play in the opener. The team doesn’t want him to sit so it will be interesting to see how long he sits and if they send him to Cleveland on occasion to get game action in. The takeaway? The Blue Jackets and Monsters have always enjoyed the closeness of each other geographically speaking. It takes on more importance this season with so many young players in the system. If a player needs to go, it’s easy for the team to make it happen. They have a real advantage and will take full advantage of it.

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