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Blue Jackets welcomed by fans as scrimmages get under way

Milano, goalies stand out as Columbus training camp rolls on

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

One day of practices is in the books as the Blue Jackets were welcomed back onto the ice Saturday morning by a full house of fans at the OhioHealth Ice Haus. 

The bleachers were full and fans ringed the entire ice surface, sometimes two or three deep, to get their first look at the Blue Jackets, who are coming off the first playoff series victory in franchise history.

Saturday was the first day of three that will feature practices and scrimmages for the 59 players in camp, all leading up to Tuesday's preseason opener vs. Buffalo at Nationwide Arena. Sunday and Monday's action will be open to the public as well in the Ice Haus, with practices beginning at 9 a.m. and scrimmages at 10. 

Both scrimmages held Saturday ended up in ties, each of which was decided by shootouts. In the first, Cam Atkinson scored while Sonny Milano did not, giving the win to his team, while Gustav Nyquist scored the game winner in scrimmage two.  

Tweet from @BlueJacketsNHL: sheesh#CBJ | @CamAtkinson13 pic.twitter.com/avYEg0NEpI

During the first scrimmage, tied 2-2 between Team 1 and Team 2, Milano and Riley Nash tallied for Team 2, while Calvin Thurkauf and Atkinson scored for Team 1 before Atkinson's shootout winner. 

In the second scrimmage, Nyquist won the day for Team 3, which got regulation goals in the 45-minute game from Alexander Wennberg, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Kole Sherwood. Team 2's goals came from Milano, Kevin Stenlund and Trey Fix-Wolansky. 

Milano's Solid Start 

The Blue Jackets appear to be at a crossroads with Milano, the team's first-round pick in the 2014 draft. 

He's in the final year of his current contract and must go through waivers to be sent to the AHL. At the same time, he's still just 23 years old and is coming off a nearly point-per-game season with Cleveland when he had an 11-13-24 line in 27 games while adding two goals and 10 points in eight postseason games. 

Milano began the year with the Blue Jackets but with a single goal and point in eight games, as well as a lack of lineup spots, he was sent to the Monsters. The points came quickly, but so did an injury, as a hand issue that required surgery cost him more than two months.  

"I had a good year last year, it was just the injuries didn't help," Milano said. "I came back for the playoffs and we had a good little run there. I thought I played well. Just try to keep the momentum going into camp now." 

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has said Milano would have been in the mix for a recall were in not for the injury, and the talented prospect has a chance to stick with Columbus this year. 

In fact, there might be a Bread-sized hole for Milano -- and others -- to fill.  

"Yes, this is a great opportunity for Sonny Milano as well," Kekalainen said. "There's going to be a huge opening on the left side with No. 9 gone. i would hope that all those guys are hungry as hell to get that opportunity and take that ice time." 

In his career, Milano has posted 15 goals and 24 points in 70 NHL games over four different seasons. Fifty-five of those games came two years ago, when he had 14 goals and 22 points.  

The two-goal day is a good start, and there's no doubting the Long Island native's skill. It's just putting together a full 200-foot game that has to be next on his to-do list to stay with the Blue Jackets.  

"I just turned 23," he said. "It's definitely time to get going here and try to build off of camp and have a pretty good year. I know I can play in this league. I produced when I was here. I just have to stick and play well." 

Goalies Play Well 

If there's one question looming over the Blue Jackets going into the season, it has to be located in the goal crease.  

Columbus has talent in the crease, but the reality is there's not much experience -- an NHL low, in fact. So it had to be encouraging that the Blue Jackets' top three netminders were quite good in the two camp-opening scrimmages.  

Elvis Merzlikins was the only goalie of the top trio to see action in both of the scrimmages as the top goalie on Team 2. In about 43 minutes of action, he gave up a single goal, as Bjorkstrand was able to put one off the crossbar and behind him on the rush. He also made perhaps the niftiest save of the day, a glove snag of a shot from Sam Vigneault from the slot. 

Tweet from @BlueJacketsNHL: "I'll take that" - @Merzly30 probably 🤯 pic.twitter.com/YUTriEu6Ue

Joonas Korpisalo, meanwhile, played just 20 minutes of scrimmage action but kept a clean sheet. In about 23 minutes of action -- the Blue Jackets swapped their goalies early in the second period of the second scrimmage -- Veini Vehvilainen allowed two goals, both on breakaways by Fix-Wolansky and Stenlund. 

Coming into the first camp in which he's not the clear No. 2 behind Sergei Bobrovsky, Korpisalo said he's not putting any pressure on himself to earn the starting job. 

"I'm just trying to be myself," said Korpisalo, who has played in 90 games over the past four seasons. "Not take things too seriously and just have fun in there, too. At the same time being really serious and professional, obviously, but I don't want to be Mr. Serious out there." 

Hannikainen Arrives 

The familiar No. 37 of Markus Hannikainen was on the ice as the Blue Jackets skated and scrimmaged, but it wasn't easy to make that happen. 

Despite the fact he started filing paperwork for his visa in June when he re-signed with the Blue Jackets, the Finnish forward didn't get approved until late this week. So instead of being in Columbus about 10 days before the start of camp, as he planned, he didn't arrive until 10 p.m. Friday night when he was picked up at John Glenn International Airport by Korpisalo. 

"You can just imagine how it feels to come late," Hannikainen said. 

He said he got "enough" sleep before hitting the ice Saturday, but now he has to get up to speed as far as going through the preseason medical tests, skate tests and endurance tests -- all while battling jetlag. He was smiling -- per usual -- as he talked to the media about his arrival, but it was clear the annoyance was still present. 

"It's really frustrating, especially when you know you haven't done anything wrong," he said. "They don't give you a timeline when it's going to be ready. That's the toughest part. I just had to wait for the visa to come, so it was frustrating." 

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