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Werenski, Merzlikins pen unforgettable end to 2019

The two Blue Jackets led the way to a memorable win on New Year's Eve

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Say you were at the Blue Jackets game last night and at the start of the third period, you were this writer and someone handed you a ballot allowing you to pick the three stars of the game. 

As the minutes ticked down to the end, there were only two candidates for the No. 1 billing. There was Zach Werenski, whose hat trick sent a deluge of New Year's Eve hats -- sequined hats, CBJ hats, toques of all ilk -- flying to the Nationwide Arena ice.  

Then there was Elvis Merzlikins, the Blue Jackets goalie who stood on his head for two periods, used his head to make a late save, and celebrated his first-ever NHL win in his first-ever home start with such vigor that he nearly flattened captain Nick Foligno with a flying bear hug postgame. 

Who would you pick? 

I mean, it has to be Werenski, right? Hat tricks for defensemen just don't happen very often; in fact, of the 784 games the Blue Jackets played in the 2010s, exactly one defenseman scored three goals in a game. 

It was Werenski, last night. Add in the hoopla -- a sellout crowd, and the man who used to sit next to him in the Blue Jackets locker room, Sergei Bobrovsky, in the opposing net -- and you could barely dream the storyline Werenski accomplished last night. 

"If I had (a hat trick before), it's been a while," said Werenski, who said he may have notched one in youth hockey -- let's be honest, the fantastically skilled defenseman probably did -- but didn't remember one from the U.S. National Team Development Program, his college years or his pro career. 

"It was pretty cool. After I scored that third goal, I looked at the crowd and I saw hats coming down. I've never had that feeling before." 

Video: FLA@CBJ: Werenski earns first career NHL hat trick

Then again, wouldn't you have to go with Merzlikins as the star of the game? And we mean the STAR.  

Who will ever forget his postgame celebration, where almost three months of frustration - he often talked about his dream of delivering the puck from his first NHL win to his mother, only to play in 10 games without a victory - came out in the form of that hug with Foligno, then a celebratory twirl on the ice in which he pitched onto one skate, lifted the other leg as high as he could and unleashed a massive fist pump as the cheers rained down. 

"I was not expecting that," Foligno joked of the hug. "He's pumped. I'm pumped for him. We're all pumped for him."

Tweet from @BlueJacketsNHL: Pure joy 🤩💙#CBJ | @Merzly30 pic.twitter.com/5ad3fJfalc 

On the other hand, again, you really couldn't predict the script Werenski followed -- except he nearly did. It all started exactly one year prior, when the defenseman scored two goals on New Year's Eve, including the game winner in the final minutes, as Columbus won on the final day of 2018 vs. Ottawa. 

Going into the final game of the decade, Werenski's mind couldn't help but go back to a year ago when he arrived at Nationwide Arena. 

"I actually forget who I was talking to before the game - it was (Eric) Robinson and Kuks (Dean Kukan) maybe," Werenski said. "They were joking about a hat trick. Ask Kuks about it. When I got back to the bench, he was like, 'You called it.' 

"I can't really remember what we were talking about, but I told him my only two-goal game was last year on New Year's Eve, and then after the second Robinson looked at me on the bench and was like, 'New Year's?' I said, 'I love New Year's.' And I scored a third one a couple shifts later, so it was pretty funny." 

But if there's one indelible moment from the game, it would have to be Merzlikins' celebration, which was as much for one game as for what it meant for the confidence of a goalie who the team will have to count on for the next four to six weeks while Joonas Korpisalo rehabs from knee surgery. 

It was fitting that as Elvis saluted the Columbus crowd -- and it saluted him right back -- his namesake's hit "A Little Less Conversation" played over the PA system. A day before his first start, the normally loquacious Merzlikins requested to have the chance to step away from the media spotlight in order to focus solely on what he called "my moment" to live his NHL dream.  

Indeed, he was keenly focused, all business, during both Monday's practice and Tuesday's morning skate, with the enormous, pressure-filled opportunity in front of him.  

And once he finished off his victory, he kept with his no-media policy, instead releasing a statement through the Blue Jackets that read in part, "Finally (my first win) came. I had 10 shots to do it, so finally it came (laughs). … I was really nervous at the start playing at home in front of a big crowd. It's a little different to play at home than on the road. I felt a little bit more pressure. It was really hard, but it's part of the experience and I'm really happy (to get the win)." 

For his teammates, seeing that step was rewarding.  

"I think what he's learned, though, is he's slowly becoming a pro," Foligno said. "We know what it feels like and the pressure that he puts on himself. He's just, I think what he's learned though is he's slowly becoming a pro. He's understanding. He looked like one in net tonight. He looked calm, collected, how he needs to play. I'm not a goalie coach by any means, but you can tell when a guy looks comfortable in his own skin and I think it gave us a lot of confidence in front of him." 

So who would you pick? Werenski or Merzlikins? 

In the end, Werenski was tabbed as the No. 1 star. But it's safe to say it was a night neither -- nor the nearly 19,000 fans in Nationwide Arena -- will ever forget.  

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