For players that move in free agency or trades, the return to an old team is probably always circled on the calendar. But some returns are bigger than others, and Tuesday night saw one of the biggest returns of the 2019-20 season. Plus, Wednesday will feature the NHL’s biggest annual holiday tradition: the Winter Classic.
Bobrovsky Returns to Columbus
When you look at the Columbus Blue Jackets’ franchise record books, two names dominate: Rick Nash and Sergei Bobrovsky. The latter is the franchise leader in wins (213), saves (10,193), save percentage (SV%, .921), goals-against average (GAA, 2.41) shutouts (33) and point shares (75.3). During his time in Columbus, he also won two Vezina Trophies, the only active trophy to have won more than one.
So, while Bobrovsky’s departure after last season was hardly a surprise, it was still the end of a historic partnership between team and player. The Florida Panthers signed Bobrovsky to a massive seven-year, $70 million contract in the offseason, and he had not returned to Nationwide Arena in Columbus since. Until Tuesday night.
The circumstances for Bobrovsky’s return were more significant than many might have anticipated. Both teams stood a few points outside of a playoff position entering the game. And while the Panthers’ new goalie had yet to find his footing — with an .898 SV% and a 3.26 GAA in 28 starts — his replacement in Columbus, Joonas Korpisalo, was having a phenomenal year. Unfortunately, Korpisalo’s serious injury earlier in the week meant he’d miss the game, as well as four-to-six more weeks of action.
Anytime a former star who chose to leave returns to his old team, the reception is uncertain. Will fans overlook any hard feelings and welcome him home? Or will they let resentment rule the day and boo him out of the building? Fortunately, in a touching moment, Bobrovsky was met was an almost universally positive reaction.
The warm welcome ended at the glass, though, as Bobrovsky’s former team looked determined to embarrass him in his old stomping grounds. The Russian netminder allowed four goals on 28 shots, and three of them were scored by Zach Werenski, his first career hat trick. As it turns out, in an ironic twist, it was a night full of “firsts” at Nationwide.
Merzlikins’ First Win
While Korpisalo has had a fantastic season for the Blue Jackets, his backup, Elvis Merzlikins, has struggled. In eight NHL starts entering Tuesday night, he was 0-4-3 with an .889 SV% and a 3.41 GAA. A 2014 third-round draft pick, Merzlikins entered the season as a 25-year-old NHL rookie. And on Tuesday against the Blue Jackets’ former goaltending star, he recorded his very first win.
Merzlikins significantly outperformed the man who helped block his path to the NHL for many seasons. He stopped all but one of 29 shots, seven while the Panthers were on the power play, for a .973 SV%. The Panthers generated eight high danger chances but could get only one past the Latvian goalie. Understandably, once the game was official, Merzlikins couldn’t help but express his excitement.
With Korpisalo out for more than a month, Merzlikins will have to take the lion’s share of starts. It will be a big test for him, and if the Blue Jackets intend to stay anywhere near a playoff position, they will need him to be strong.
Winter Classic Preview
New Year’s Day is the annual date for one of the NHL’s most popular traditions: the Winter Classic. Each year the league chooses a pair of teams and an outdoor venue to host the game, which usually draws a full house and a passionate TV audience.
This year they went the non-traditional route, choosing Dallas’ Cotton Bowl as the venue, and the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators as the teams. But with two new teams in the mix, that means a whole host of players getting their first chance at a Winter Classic experience, including the goaltenders.
The Stars will start Ben Bishop against the Predators’ Pekka Rinne. Historically two of the best goaltenders in the league, they are having very different seasons so far. The aging Rinne is 13-7-3 with an .894 SV% and a 3.02 GAA, whereas the towering Bishop is 13-9-3 with a .926 SV% and a 2.34 GAA. Bishop enters the game as the hotter goalie, and he may also have the hotter pads on the ice, too.
With home-ice advantage and the steadier goaltender, it might seem like an easy win for the Stars. But don’t be too sure. Home ice has not been advantageous in Winter Classics of the past. In its 11 season history, only three times has the home team emerged victorious.
Puck drops in the Cotton Bowl at 2:00 PM Eastern tomorrow. Enjoy the game, and we here at the Hockey Writers wish you all a very happy new year!
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.