As has been recent tradition, the Columbus Blue Jackets are racking up wins in the Traverse City prospect’s tournament. With two wins in two showings this weekend, that makes six consecutive wins for the Blue Jackets at Centre Ice Arena.
Coming into this version of the tournament, all eyes from a Blue Jackets’ perspective were focused on the netminders. Both Elvis Merzlikins and Veini Vehvilainen were expected to share the net. Normally in a prospect’s tournament you don’t put a lot of stock in what you see.
This year, it feels different. It feels different because the Blue Jackets have their number two and number three goaltending prospects in the organization playing in this tournament. The team has their potential backup and their AHL starter getting a small taste of things.
This tournament takes on added significance knowing the Blue Jackets did nothing in free agency to address the biggest question on their team. What you see is likely what you get in net.
The Blue Jackets are prepared to enter the season with Merzlikins and Vehvilainen in important spots. So this version of Traverse City will give us a glimpse of what the future might hold.
How did they do in their first starts? In each case, pretty good.
Merzlikins got the start on Friday afternoon against the New York Rangers. He gave up the first goal but then settled in and was good.
The main thing that stood out was his composure. When things got crazy around him, he was poised and didn’t allow his emotions to get the best of him after allowing the opening goal.
Then the Blue Jackets built a lead. Merzlikins made sure the lead stayed. Even when the Rangers demonstrated some excellent passing, Elvis brought the fans out of their seat with an unbelievable diving save showing off his athleticism.
When the dust settled on a 6-2 Blue Jackets win, Merzlikins stopped 29/31 shots. He didn’t seem phased by the smaller ice surface. He played his positioning well and made the saves you’d expect to see. He has plenty of work to do, but Friday night was definitely a good start for someone who could see a chunk of regular season playing time.
Vehvilainen got the start Saturday night against the Minnesota Wild. He saw very little work in the first period only having to stop two shots. The Blue Jackets got some power plays and owned the puck.
But it’s what happened in the second and third periods that stood out. The Wild owned possession after falling behind 2-0. Vehvilainen had to make several key saves throughout the last 40 minutes including one where he was seemingly down and out but still got his pad on it.
It seemed like he was finding his way on angles at times, but for the most part he was in position and made the saves he had to, especially when the Blue Jackets had to kill a late 5-on-3 power play against.
The Wild kept pressing and did eventually tie the game at two late. The game went to overtime and was seemingly heading for a shootout after both goalies made key saves, including a Vehvilainen save on a 2-on-0. But Alex Texier had other ideas.
Off a faceoff play, Texier got the puck and won the game with just 6.3 seconds left in overtime. Vehvilainen kept the Blue Jackets in the game the final 45 minutes. That’s an impressive start especially since it was his first in North America.
The Road Ahead
The Blue Jackets will play two more times in Traverse City before heading home to start training camp. They play the Dallas Stars on Monday and an opponent to be determined on Tuesday. Securing one point Monday will send the Blue Jackets to the championship game Tuesday night. If they can get there, they will look for their sixth championship in this tournament.
We expect to see Merzlikins start the game on Monday with a spot in the championship game on the line. No matter how these last two games play out, we got a glimpse of the immediate future of Blue Jackets’ goaltending. There will be some growing pains especially for two young goalies new to the North American game. But each has a bright future and are eager to prove they can play at a high level.
For now though, each showed well in Traverse City. Mission accomplished at this very early stage.