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Blue Jackets rally around Merzlikins after tough NHL debut

Columbus goaltender wants to learn from loss to Penguins

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

The horn sounded to end a difficult 7-2 loss on Saturday night, and in most cases, the Blue Jackets would have immediately turned to their left and headed down the tunnel, eager to take the lessons from the loss and then move past it.  

But on Saturday night in Pittsburgh, a number of players took a more circuitous route to the dressing room. Those players jumped over the boards and skated to meet goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who absorbed all seven goals in his first NHL start, as he skated to the bench.  

Those players, led by captain Nick Foligno, gave the 25-year-old rookie some pats on the head, some stick taps on the pads, and some encouraging words. 

Their message? The loss, and the seven goals along with it, was hardly his fault. 

"It's awful," Foligno said when asked how badly he felt for the young goalie after the team's defense broke down over the final 40 minutes.   

"I just think once you start getting that many shots at you -- and grade-A's -- he's probably wondering where it's all coming from. That's disappointing on our end to play like that in front of him. He's been working hard and deserved that opportunity." 

Video: Merzlikins eager for next opportunity

On the other end of it, though, Merzlikins bore the brunt of the responsibility for the loss, which included a five-goal second period for the host Penguins.  

"I mess up," he said after stopping 33 of 40 Pittsburgh shots on goal. "I'm going to learn, I'm going to work and I'm going to get better. I am a grown man. I understand. I take responsibility. I understand where I made my mistakes. I gave up too many goals through my arms.  

"I think I maybe made (a few) good saves, but I should save the team. If the team makes mistakes, I'm the last man there. That's my job, to save them. I didn't do that tonight." 

It was set up to be a storybook beginning for the goaltender from Latvia, just the fourth ever from his country to make it to the NHL level. A third-round pick in the 2014 draft who has spent the last six seasons starring for HC Lugano in Switzerland, Merzlikins also has spent the past few springs backstopping his country at the international level. 

There have been strong showings at the World Championships against NHLers, and Merzlikins looked the part in the first period when he stopped all 10 shots the Penguins threw at him. But things came unraveled in the second period, starting just 1:45 into the frame when Patric Hornqvist was alone in front and tipped Jack Johnson's shot from the point past the netminder.  

From there, the Penguins racked up the goals, including a couple that Merzlikins would likely want to have back. That was perhaps no more true than on the final goal, as fellow Latvian Teddy Blueger fired an innocuous looking shot that the CBJ goalie got a piece of but couldn't keep out of the net.  

But many of the tallies came on open shots in transition against a Blue Jackets defense that broke down time and time again. With Merzlikins joining Joonas Korpisalo in the Blue Jackets net to start the season, the Blue Jackets spent much of the preseason working on their defensive game, only to lose patience and open up against Pittsburgh.  

"I think we have to definitely do a better job in front of him, making it a little easier on him," defenseman Zach Werenski said. "There was a lot of odd-man rushes. He made some huge saves. The game could have been worse than even what it was. Going forward, we have to do a better job in front of our goalies." 

Head coach John Tortorella said he considered pulling Merzlikins after the five-goal second period, but the coach chose to leave him in the game for the entire 60 minutes.  

"I think I'm beginning to understand him," Tortorella said. "He is a great competitor. He is a really good kid. He wants to do well. I didn't talk to him (during the second intermission), I just thought the best decision for him was to let him keep on trying to play. I think we didn't give him much help at all the last 20-25 minutes. 

"This is a group thing. For a pretty unique position as far as a goaltender, it's a lesson for him, which I think is going to help him in the long run and also for us as far as how we have to play." 

Merzlikins said he wasn't nervous going into the game and felt he played well in the first before suffering what he termed a "blackout" in the second as the goals piled up. But the goalie added he's also his own biggest critic, and he expects to watch video to see where he can clean up his game.  

"You have to learn to get back on your feet and get your head up," he said. "Next time when I come here to this arena, if I'm going to play, I'm going to win that game for sure." 

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