Blue Jackets Lean on Secret Weapons in Midst of Struggles

The Columbus Blue Jackets are off to a 12-7-0 start to the amazement of many outside of their locker room. This was a team that many expected to finish somewhere near the bottom of the standings. So far in 2021-22, the Blue Jackets have done more than an admirable job of being competitive and giving teams fits.

With that said however, the Blue Jackets are also struggling for long stretches of games. That’s to be expected for a young team learning and trying to figure things out. But they’re still 12-7-0 as of Sunday. Clearly some things are working for them. The question on the minds of many is what?

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Good teams eventually learn how to win even when they’re less than their best. Those teams always have that set of dependable things they can lean on in tough times. For example, the Tampa Bay Lightning have the best goalie in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy on their side when there’s chaos around them. They lean on him and he’s helped them deliver two Stanley Cups.

The Blue Jackets too have things they depend on in the midst of struggles. These things have helped keep them afloat. This has been on full display in recent games in stretches. Let’s set the scene for you to show you what I mean.

Setting the Scene: Struggles in the Forefront

Our focus here will be on the Blue Jackets’ last two games, a 4-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks and a 6-3 loss against the St. Louis Blues. Each game showed the current struggles of the Blue Jackets.

In the Canucks’ game, it was the first 40 minutes. In the Blues’ game, it was the second period. In both games, the Blue Jackets could not handle and had no answers for what was being thrown at them. The speed of the Canucks and Blues gave them fits. There was a lot of chasing and puck watching. It was ugly to watch at the peak of the opposition’s momentum.

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But I want you to notice something. Despite the long period of time the opposition held the momentum, the Blue Jackets were in both games. They were able to find a way to stay either ahead or within striking distance in each game.

There were reasons for that. Those reasons are paramount for the Blue Jackets as they’ve helped them earn points or stay in games. Let’s now look at each game separately to see what was shining for them in the midst of the struggles.

Vancouver Canucks: Staying Ahead

On Friday night, despite the Canucks badly outplaying the Blue Jackets in the first 40 minutes, they never trailed in the game. They used key moments to take a lead despite barely having the puck. This leads to their first secret weapon, the penalty kill.

The Blue Jackets are at 84.2% for the season. That ranks 12th in the NHL. But it’s what they’ve done since Halloween which makes this a secret weapon. They’ve only allowed three power play goals against in 33 chances against, a kill success rate of 90.9%. Couple that with the two shorthanded goals they’ve scored in that time and you see they’ve been outscored 3-2 when shorthanded. That’s an impressive run.

One of those shorthanded goals came against the Canucks to open the scoring.

The Canucks had all the momentum and seemed destined to take the lead. But then one mistake was all it took. Gus Nyquist ended up with a breakaway and beat Thatcher Demko to put the Blue Jackets ahead.

Gustav Nyquist Columbus Blue Jackets
Gustav Nyquist is part of the surging Blue Jackets’ penalty kill. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Blue Jackets’ penalty kill has been so good of late that it has not only kept them in games but has helped decide some outcomes. When you’re a team that can go long stretches without the puck, one way to combat that is to ensure your penalty kill is dependable. It’s been among the league’s best the last month and a big reason why they have the record they have.

The Blue Jackets have a unique blend of talent on their penalty kill. Nyquist, Alex Texier, Sean Kuraly and Eric Robinson just to name a few. They work hard. They’re fast. But yet they have the skill to finish. They’re also looking to attack if they get the puck. This isn’t going to be a secret much longer if they continue to perform at or near this pace.

This leads us to secret weapon number two. Most folks outside Columbus think of the Blue Jackets as a young team. That’s 100% true. However many of those same folks leave the word skill out. This is a young, skilled hockey team. Why is that important? In this context, that’s because of how opportunistic they’ve been in games.

Case in point, with the score 1-1 in the second period, the Blue Jackets got the puck for one the rare times in the period and made something happen. Gavin Bayreuther threw the puck towards the net. It went right to a pinching Adam Boqvist. Boqvist scored on that rebound. That’s being opportunistic and taking advantage of a bounce.

Related: Blue Jackets Believe Adam Boqvist’s Best Is Yet To Come

Boqvist’s senses helped him be in the right place to get that rebound. Then he had the skill to finish from the side of the goal. Skill leads to opportunity. The Blue Jackets took advantage of it and it kept them in the lead while they were struggling.

These Blue Jackets have skill in a lot of different places in the lineup. If you make one mistake, they have the ability to make you pay. In previous seasons, it was hard to determine who that player would be to score those big goals. Now they have a handful who can do that. Many overlook this aspect. They might be young but they are skilled and will only get better.

Let’s jump to secret weapon number three that was evident in the Blues’ game and then we’ll wrap up with a fourth that was evident in different ways in both games.

St. Louis Blues: Power Play Conversions

We’ve discussed the penalty kill. But let’s look at the other end of the special teams’ spectrum with the power play. The Blue Jackets went 2/4 Saturday night including scoring the opening goal of the game on the man advantage. Bonne Jenner tipped Zach Werenski’s shot for his 10th goal of the season.

The Blue Jackets played a dominant first period and then converted it to a lead thanks to their 10th ranked power play. That’s not a typo. The Blue Jackets own a top-10 power play as we’re about to flip the calendar to December. Amazing, isn’t it?

That’s why we are considering it a secret weapon. Not only is there skill at all positions, they’re more dangerous than in year’s past. They have players who can distribute, finish and play in different positions to keep the opposition guessing. They are a threat to score every time they step on the ice.

This time, Jenner’s tip gave the Blue Jackets the lead and at least put them in position to have a good chance of winning. Although they melted down the second period by allowing three goals, their power play put them back in the game at the start of the third thanks to that man Boqvist again.

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Voracek saw Boqvist and hit him with a perfect backhand pass. Boqvist was wide open and made no mistake with the finish. The play demonstrates why they are on pace to finish with one of the best power-play percentages in franchise history. They currently sit at 21.8%. Turns out having skill everywhere makes a big difference.

The big takeaway is that special teams used to kill the Blue Jackets. At least so far in 2021-22, special teams has been a huge boost for them. Having two potential top-10 units leads to good things. Let’s now put a big bow on everything and talk about the most important part of all this.

Goaltending, Goaltending, Goaltending

This isn’t much of a secret to be perfectly honest but it is one of if not the biggest reason why the Blue Jackets are out 12-7-0. But we do need to talk about this from the perspective of both goaltenders because each presents a different story.

In the Canucks’ game, Elvis Merzlikins was the first, second and third star. While his teammates badly struggled the first 40 minutes, he was strong and allowed the Blue Jackets to never trail in the game. He finished the night with 39 saves on 41 shots.

For the season, Merzlikins is 9-3-0 with a .929 save percentage in 12 starts. What more can you say? Over a course of a season, these are Vezina-like numbers. What makes it even more impressive is that the Blue Jackets allow the second most shots per game in the NHL at 34.3. He is bailing this defense out on most nights and is shining brightly. He helped steal Friday night’s win.

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On the other hand, Joonas Korpisalo is not having a good season numbers wise. However it is not entirely his fault. When Werenski says “We kind of left him out to dry” after Saturday’s loss in St. Louis, well he’s not lying.

The Blues in the second period dominated everything. Yes he may have allowed three goals in the period. But considering the kind of chances they were getting, this should have been 6-1. The point is Korpisalo did enough to allow the Blue Jackets to stay within shouting distance.

Joonas Korpisalo Columbus Blue Jackets
Joonas Korpisalo was under siege Saturday night but did allow his team to stay in the game through two periods. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

At the start of the third, it was looking like the Blue Jackets might try another comeback. They made it 3-2 early before the Blues took over again. You can’t pin Saturday night on Korpisalo. The defense in front of him was awful. Yes you do need an occasional extra save here and there, but he gave his team those in the second and kept the game closer than it should have been.

But overall, you have to look at goaltending as a strength of this team especially when Merzlikins starts.

In Conclusion

It’s no accident the Blue Jackets are off to a 12-7-0 start despite their struggles in long stretches of games. They have secret weapons working for them when their overall game is off.

They’re opportunistic because of their skill. They have both special teams units in the good category. And they’re getting great goaltending from their starter Merzlikins while Korpisalo at least gives them a chance to win like Saturday night’s second period. You add it all up and you have a team who can find ways to win even when they struggle.

This team is going to have many nights of struggles. But unlike previous seasons, they can win these games anyway because they can lean on their strengths.

The takeaway? Watch out when they figure things out on a more consistent basis. But with that said, don’t be surprised if they stay in this race longer than you think. They clearly have ways to overcome in-game struggles to find standing points. That’s their secret weapon.

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