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Merzlikins, Vehvilainen get taste of NHL action in Pittsburgh

Blue Jackets' goalies combined for 31 saves in preseason loss to Pens

by Jeffrey Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

It was a saucer pass that left Elvis Merzlikins' eyes as wide as, well, saucers. 

As Evgeni Malkin skated in on the rookie Blue Jackets netminder on a 2-on-1 on Thursday night, the longtime NHL star spied Alex Galchenyuk going to the far post and flipped a perfect pass over a sliding Columbus defender.  

It was, frankly, a thing of beauty.  

"I never saw a saucer pass like this in my life to be honest," Merzlikins later said. "It was perfect." 

Yet Merzlikins' response was just as good. The Latvian goalie quickly slid from his left to his right, using every inch of his right pad to get to the post and robbing Galchenyuk of the slam-dunk goal in a rare "welcome to the NHL" moment that had a happy ending. 

Tweet from @JacketsInsider: Video evidence of the excellent side-to-side toe save by Elvis Merzlikins earlier. #CBJ pic.twitter.com/x7S09qPHJ3

It was one of 17 saves on 18 tries Merzlikins made in the Blue Jackets' 4-1 loss to the Penguins, but in many ways it stood above the rest.  

"That save gave me my confidence, I think," Merzlikins said. "(The pass) surprised me, but that save gave me more confidence to finish my time (in net)." 

The preseason is all about evaluation at the NHL level, and 20 players were being evaluated when the Blue Jackets traveled to take on Pittsburgh. 

But the performances of two players were always going to be evaluated above the rest in PPG Paints Arena. 

For goaltenders Merzlikins and Veini Vehvilainen, it was each's first time in the net in an NHL arena against an NHL team. The games won't count in the NHL standings -- yet -- but it was still a chance to dip a toe into the water of a pool that's about to get very deep. 

Each has excellent credentials, but neither has played a minute at the NHL or AHL level, where the two will be counted on this season after the offseason departure of Sergei Bobrovsky. 

The end result was a win for a Penguins team that skated all of its big guns up front other than Sidney Crosby. And it was a mixed bag for each netminder, as Merzlikins allowed one goal while Vehvilainen ceded three goals on 17 shots against. 

To Mike Eaves, the Cleveland Monsters coach who was behind the bench for the Blue Jackets on Thursday night, it was just another step in their development. 

"I could hear them talking about it, like things happen so much faster because players are bigger, stronger, faster, better and in a closed area," he said. "They just haven't seen enough of that. Their eyes are as big as saucers. This is all part of the learning process. In the long run, that's going to be really good for them." 

Video: Merzlikins describes his first preseason game

For Merzlikins, the progress seemed to come quite quickly. He was beaten only on the power play in the first period, as Galchenyuk was left alone at the top of the left circle and had time to load up and fire. Merzlikins later said there was a bit of a screen so he didn't see the shot as cleanly as he would have liked, but he also was displeased he let the puck in the net.  

However, that goal also returned him to reality as he said he felt a bit awed by the moment at the start of the game being on the same ice as players he had previously seen only on TV or PlayStation. 

"I think that goal broke the ice," he said. "I wasn't that nervous maybe anymore. I let it go and I just started to play hockey. I didn't think about my position, how to be perfect on every shot. I was just playing with a free mind, enjoying the game and playing, and it went pretty good I think." 

Merzlikins ended up making saves on the last 15 shots he faced, including a barrage early in the second period when he made nine stops in the first seven minutes of play.  

The 25-year-old was lifted just before the halfway mark for Vehvilainen, who at times didn't get much help from his defense. Jake Guentzel scored shortly into the Finn's tenure when he was left alone in front, and Nathan Legare's two goals 23 seconds apart in the third period that iced the game came after a faceoff tie-up and a turnover that left him open in the slot.  

Vehvilainen admitted the experience will help the game slow down for him as he gets used to the smaller North American rink and the pace of the game, but he was still disappointed to give up the three goals.  

"It was fun to play," the 22-year-old said. "I'm not very happy about my own performance, but it was a good first test. Now I know a little bit of what's going to happen." 

With Merzlikins and Vehvilainen, each is building his foundation in North American hockey with every puck faced, and the experiences that go along with that will go a long way to helping each goalie reach his potential. 

"It was different," Merzlikins said. "It wasn't like I expected when we talked this morning. It's a different feeling when you're playing in that small arena. You realize you are in a real NHL stadium and it's different. I knew that it was going to be nervous. That's human. Then I started feeling better in the end of the first period and the second half (of the time) that I played. 

"The good thing is I saw and am alert on how players are playing here in the game. I saw that. I know what to expect now. I am just going to keep working at it." 

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