Coming into Saturday evening’s game, Columbus Blue Jackets starting goaltender and rookie phenom Elvis Merzlikins hadn’t lost a game since January 9th.
He entered the third period poised to post his sixth shutout of the season (and sixth in his last nine games, to boot) after holding down the fort for the first forty minutes against Colorado — but thanks to some late-game heroics from both Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri, Elvis was instead handed his first loss in nine games en route to Colorado’s 31st win and counting.
The Avalanche have been doing well so far this year in a mercurial Western Conference, but had set a tone as a bit of a team that struggled to come back after trailing through the first 40 minutes of action.
That pattern this year put them in a precarious position as they entered into their goaltending duel against Merzlikins and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have been riding high with the best Latvian goaltender since Arturs Irbe over the last few weeks.
Both teams went scoreless for the first somewhat sluggish and penalty-filled 20 minutes of action, with Philipp Grubauer turning away just nine shots and Merzlikins facing only six by the time the first period came to a close.
The second frame saw more jump from the Avalanche, who would end up with a 10-7 shot advantage through that 20 minute segment despite taking both a too many men penalty and a minor by Mikko Rantanen for hooking. They came out behind after the 40 minute mark, though, thanks to a mid-period goal by Columbus defender Seth Jones — who fired from the blue line through traffic and beat Grubauer to take the first lead of the game by either team:
Given their somewhat-abysmal late game trailing record this year, it seemed grim for the Avalanche to enter the third and final period down by the lone goal of the game — especially against a goaltender who has been as hot lately as the young Merzlikins.
But thanks to a little shift in fate, the Avalanche managed to turn things around before the hosting Blue Jackets knew what hit them.
With less than 10 minutes left to go in the game, Nazem Kadri managed to capitalize on a great effort to turn the puck over by defender Nikita Zadorov. And before Merzlikins was able to react, Kadri had threaded his way through the Columbus defense and ripped a shot to the high far side of the net to even things up:
With renewed vigor, Nathan MacKinnon followed up Kadri’s elite effort with a dazzling move of his own just a few minutes later to overtake the lead 2-1 — and although Columbus valiantly attempted to put themselves back on top (or even tie things up), they were handed their first loss since early January.
- The Avalanche have struggled to be the comeback kids this year, going just 0-11-1 in games trailing after 40 minutes so far this year. They’ve been dominant early in games, but Merzlikins’ recent consistency gave them a serious test. The fact that they were able to win despite a situation they’ve struggled in recently was a positive sign for the Central Division club, who will look to take yet another step forward as a Western Conference powerhouse this year.
- This is now 31 goals and counting for Nathan MacKinnon this year, which — if possible — puts him on pace to have an even stronger year this year than last. He’s on pace to net 47 goals over 82 games this year, which would be a career high for him and catapult him even higher up the list of NHLers who just aren’t getting recognized enough. But credit to Nazem Kadri for being the difference-maker in this game, too; after spending years trying to establish a reputation as being both antagonistic and incredibly influential, it seems that his seamless transition to Colorado has proven that the critics in Toronto didn’t know him so well after all.
- Philipp Grubauer still doesn’t have quite the numbers that Pavel Francouz does, but it’s worth pointing out that we’re approaching that time of year when he typically shines his brightest. The German-born goaltender has historically played his strongest hockey around and after the trade deadline, both in Washington and here in Colorado; if he’s already sitting on a .912 now, it’s crazy to think of what could happen if he’s just getting started.