The way the city of Columbus and the Blue Jackets faithful embraced Elvis Merzlikins when he became one of the hottest players in the NHL during the month of January hasn't been forgotten by the goalie.
The way the fans did the same when Merzlikins struggled to begin his career also remains fresh in his mind.
The Latvian goalie couldn't help but think of both Thursday evening as he reflected on the fact he'll be plying his trade in front of those fans for the next two seasons. Merzlikins inked a two-year contract extension through 2021-22 that was announced by the team Thursday, and it's fair to say he couldn't imagine playing anywhere else.
"Obviously it's an honor to be here again for next two years," he said. "I am really happy. I am really excited, and I am really happy because I like everything here. I like the city. I really love my teammates and I like the organization, especially the fans. When I came here in the start of the season, I felt like I was already home.
"I didn't have the best start to my NHL career maybe but still the fans, they didn't abandon me, they stayed with me, they took me with open arms. Even if there was a bad game they were always with me and even when it was the good games, they were always with me."
Video: Elvis Merzlikins 2019-20 highlights
As Merzlikins referred to, his first season after coming over from Europe, where he starred with HC Lugano in Switzerland's top league and at the IIHF World Championships with his native Latvia, was a bit of a roller coaster.
He had an 0-4-4 record and the Blue Jackets had zero wins in his first 10 appearances when he was forced into the starting job when Joonas Korpisalo went down with a knee injury Dec. 29.
That was the turning point for Merzlikins' season, as it was almost like a switch flipped; starting with his first-ever NHL win in a New Year's Eve game vs. Florida, Merzlikins was 13-5-4 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .935 save percentage over the next 23 games. At one point, he posted eight straight wins, tallying five shutouts with a .967 save percentage in that span, and that shutout total places him second in the NHL.
While the first three months weren't what the 2014 third-round draft pick had in his mind when his dream of playing in the NHL finally came true at age 25, Merzlikins' turnaround showed he has what it takes to become a standout goalie at the world's highest level.
"It was hard to accept that I had the rough start and then (being) the backup," Merzlikins said. "And then I had my moment when I could change things and I changed it. I got confident because I played games consistently and the perfect thing was that I was working really hard with (goalie coach Manny Legace) and he helped me to get to that level. Without his help I wouldn't get to that level. I was in the perfect spot in the perfect moment."
In all, Merzlikins has played in 33 games to this point, posting an overall mark of 13-9-8 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. The save percentage mark places him tied for third for a season in franchise history, while the GAA would place him fifth in franchise history in a campaign.
In the past week, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has signed both Korpisalo and Merzlikins to two-year deals. Both have showed they are capable of extended runs of excellent play this season, but the general manager said the contracts were about more than just what happened the past few months.
"In particular with Elvis, it's not just this season," Kekalainen said. "We followed him in Europe. Our development coaches, our goalie coaches, management, from president to general manager went there to see him the years he played over there. We had him over here at our development camp. It was the same process with Korpi after he was drafted from Finland."
And now both have the chance to stay in Columbus and continue to excel in union blue. For Merzlikins, who has remained in the capital city during the NHL's coronavirus pause, it's exactly where he wants to be.
"I think it's a perfect city to be here with perfect people around," he said.