Elvis was in the building for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, and that was a big problem for the Carolina Hurricanes.
That, and an inability to stop the Blue Jackets’ quick-strike offense.
Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins stopped 31 shots, including a pair in the first period that will undoubtedly roll on replay shows for a while, and another on a Vincent Trocheck shorthanded breakaway in the second, giving the visiting Jackets all the support they needed in a 6-0 win.
Merzlikins’ result helped exact a measure of revenge for Columbus, which just 12 days ago blew a 4-0 lead to the Hurricanes on home ice, losing 7-4. It was also a personal boost for the Latvian keeper, who’d allowed four goals in four of his previous five starts, and three in the other, going 2-3 in that stretch dating back to Dec. 11.
And they did it on national TV: ESPN had exclusive rights to a game in Raleigh for the first time in 18 years on Thursday as part of the network’s new deal with the NHL. There was little suspense by the third period.
“I gotta take the blame. I should have done something differently,” Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour said after the game. “All these practice days and days off, I should’ve come up with something just to be sharper. We saw it coming. It was bad. It was bad, bad bad.”
Meanwhile, the not-so-long-awaited debut of goaltending prospect Jack LaFontaine — who signed with the Canes out of the University of Minnesota earlier this week — hit the fast track after the Canes pulled starter Frederik Andersen 5:03 into the third period following two quick goals that pushed the Columbus lead to 4-0.
LaFontaine was rudely welcomed just 30 seconds later on another Blue Jackets breakaway — their third of the night. Cole Sillinger walked in alone and unleashed a top-shelf snipe from between the circles to net the Jackets’ dagger in what was an otherwise forgettable night for the Canes.
The Blue Jackets tried to exploit the Canes defense — even as Carolina applied serious pressure through most of the late first and all of the second periods — by flying a forward out of the zone. It worked a few times, affording the visitors a pair of breakaways and a couple of odd-man rushes.
Jackets strike first
Before Thursday’s rematch, Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour reiterated that falling behind — by any amount — wasn’t in the plans.
“We don’t want to get behind any team, especially by that much,” Brind’Amour said. “Starts are obviously crucial, but at the end of the day it’s about how you finish.”
The Canes fell behind anyway.
After carrying the play for the better part of the opening five minutes, Carolina found itself backed up in its own zone. The puck popped out to the point, and former Hurricanes defender Jake Bean stopped it and launched it back toward the cage. Andersen stopped the first shot, and then an initial offering at the right post from Jack Roslovic, but the puck squirted through Andersen and right to Emil Bemstrom, who pulled it to his backhand and tucked it over the line for the first goal of the night.
Bean was traded during the NHL Draft last summer to Columbus for a second-round pick.
Later in the first, the Canes had a fantastic chance to even the score on back-to-back shots, the first by Sebastian Aho on a cross-ice feed. Merzlikins slid hard from left to right to deny Aho, but the puck popped into the low slot in front of a charging Ethan Bear, who thought he had an open side of the net. But Merzlikins caught himself and launched back to his left just in time to knock Bear’s shot out of midair and out of harm’s way.
Second things second
In the second period, the Canes carried play — until they didn’t. Through a pair of 4-on-4 situations, and for a good chunk of 5-on-5 thereafter, Carolina held the offensive zone and put pressure on Merzlikins. But the Columbus goalie held fast, while also watching shot after shot whistle wide.
On the other end, Andersen had seen just three shots. The fourth — at 11:56 of the middle frame, was a doozy, the result of another Blue Jackets breakaway. With all of the Canes’ energy focused up front, Chinakhov snuck behind the defense, snagged a long lead pass from Vladislav Gavrikov and went in alone on Andersen, beating the Hurricanes keeper low to the blocker side.
The Canes pressured Columbus again early in the third, but it was another odd-man rush down low that put the Blue Jackets well in front. Patrick Laine fired a one-timer from the left circle on a feed from Boone Jenner to extend the Jackets’ lead to 3-0 at 4:26, and just 37 seconds later, Chinakhov added his second of the game, forcing Brind’Amour to pull Andersen.
LaFontaine fared no better behind his defensive sieve, staring down two more breakaways in the final frame, both of which ended up in the back of the net to push the winning margin to 6-0.
This story was originally published January 13, 2022 9:25 PM.