The rise of Elvis Merzlikins, Alex Ovechkin still isn't aging and what to love about the NHL this week
Let's enjoy the hockey!
Welcome to Please Like My Sport, the weekly column in which we find various things that can (and should) make you excited about hockey this week. Whether you're already a hockey enjoyer or someone who is looking for reasons to become one, the goal is to deliver reasons for you to appreciate the NHL right now.
Here are some things to enjoy about hockey this week:
Elvismania in Ohio
Heading into this season, we didn't know if the Columbus Blue Jackets even had a real goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky just departed in free agency, going to the Florida Panthers on a monster $70-million contract, and Columbus' starter was projected to be Joonas Korpisalo. With all due respect to Korpisalo, that seemed less than ideal considering he had never been a full-time starter and was coming off back-to-back seasons with a below-.900 save percentage.
But now here we are in late January and the Blue Jackets' goaltending situation is one of the league's most intriguing storylines — and for positive reasons. That's surprising, but what might be more surprising is the guy who's inspiring all the hoopla. It's not Korpisalo, who is having a decent year, but rather one Elvis Merzlikins.
It would be fair if your initial reaction to that name was…
But the NHL's first-ever Elvis is making himself known thanks to an incredible stretch of play that has helped the scrappy Blue Jackets climb the standings and get back into contention in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Over his last 10 starts dating back to New Year's Eve, the 25-year-old rookie has allowed just 15 goals on 337 shots faced, good for a save percentage of .955. He also has three shutouts in his last four games, including a 41-save clean sheet on Saturday against the Devils.
He seems to be having fun, too.
Elvis Merzlikins is fired up after recording his third shutout in four starts pic.twitter.com/Q2DSVvN5iS
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) January 19, 2020
— CBJ Front Line (@CBJFrontLine) January 19, 2020
Elvis Merzlikins in his last 4 games:
•Stopped 134 of 136 shots faced
•Stopped 31 of 32 high danger chances faced
•Expected goals against were 11.4, actually gave up just 2 (via NST)
•I can’t stress this last point enough.. his name is Elvis Merzlikins
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) January 19, 2020
The sudden emergence of Columbus and Merzlikins is even more stunning considering his start to this season was something of a disaster. Prior to this current 10-game stretch, the Blue Jackets lost all 10 games the Latvian netminder appeared in. He went 0-4-4 in eight decisions and had a .889 save percentage in that span.
We've seen young goalies make a splash, get super hot and ride a wave of success before crashing down to earth — for example, Andrew "Hamburglar" Hammond with the Senators in 2015. But we've also seen promising young goalies make a splash, get super hot and prove to be more sustainable, like Jordan Binnington with the Blues last year.
Not saying that Merzlikins is going to lead the Blue Jackets to Stanley Cup glory in his first season or that we can expect this level of play from him for the rest of the season, but he is getting plenty of praise from people around the league who know a little bit more about goaltending that I do. So maybe Columbus has found its guy.
At the very least, he's looking like a much better and much cheaper option than Bobrovsky, who hasn't been good in his first season in Florida. In 37 games played through the first half, Bobrovsky has an .898 save percentage with negative-11.84 goals saved above average. And he's making $10 million on the cap… for the next six seasons beyond this one.
Most of us predicted that Bob's deal wouldn't age well, but I don't think many of us expected it would look this bad this quick.
The Columbus Blue Jackets had their goalie walk for $70 million this summer, are paying their three goalies less than $3 million combined this season, and now have the 2nd best 5v5 save % and 3rd best save % overall
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) January 20, 2020
It brings up an interesting discussion revolving around goaltender contracts moving forward. We might be at a critical juncture for goalie deals. The league's two highest-paid keepers — Carey Price and Bobrovsky — are making $10 million against the cap in their early 30s and having downright bad years. Meanwhile, you've got guys like Merzlikins, Darcy Kuemper, Tristan Jarry and Pavel Francouz all making less than $2 million on the cap and having great seasons.
It's never been more clear that goaltending can be entirely unpredictable and shelling out cash doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get what you pay for.
Compound that with the idea that having a strong goalie tandem (as opposed to one workhorse and a backup) is seemingly becoming more popular around the NHL, perhaps we're looking at the beginning of the end for huge goalie contracts like the one we saw Bobrovsky get last summer.
Oh, who are we kidding…someone is definitely going to hand Braden Holtby a blank check this summer.
Ovechkin hits 30 again
Listen, we all know Alex Ovechkin is a machine that never breaks. We know he's a great goal scorer — one of the best the game has ever seen. This isn't news. But, still, there are some days/weeks when you kind of have to take a step back and dedicate a minute or two to appreciate how utterly ridiculous he is. This is one of those weeks.
It was an eventful week for Ovi, who scored eight goals in three games — including back-to-back hat tricks against the Devils and Islanders. He's now tied with Steve Yzerman for ninth on the NHL's all-time goals leaderboard and is moving up quickly.
Alex Ovechkin's hat trick leads the Capitals over the Islanders, 6-4.
He now has 692 career goals, passing Mario Lemieux for 10th and tying Steve Yzerman for 9th on the NHL all-time goals list.
It's also his second straight game with a hat trick. pic.twitter.com/UOTjL6oiq1
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 18, 2020
Alex Ovechkin is on pace to go from 600 to 700 goals in only 159 games.
It would mark the fewest games to make that leap for any member of the 700-goal club. It also would be the second-fewest games to get from one 100-goal milestone to another in his career. #NHLStats pic.twitter.com/jq2Qxh2FxI
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 18, 2020
The big week also pushed Ovechkin over the 30-goal mark, making it 15 out of 15 NHL seasons in which he's scored that many times. He's only the third player in NHL history to score 30 in 15 seasons, joining Mike Gartner and Jaromir Jagr. Ovechkin and Jagr are the only guys to do it in 15 straight years.
The "can he catch Gretzky?" debates are really going to heat up at some point, and the fact that you even have to take that question seriously tells you just how great Ovechkin is, especially considering the fact he missed over 100 games to lockout in his prime. At 34, he hasn't slowed down a lick and has remained incredibly durable, which is insane considering how heavy he can play at times.
One would assume his production and/or health is going to dip as he inches closer to 40, but one would have also assumed he'd never be this good for this long to begin with. The guy's a freak and nobody should underestimate him.
Coach Q returns to Chicago
Former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, now with the Panthers, made his return to Chicago on Tuesday night and it was a pretty emotional affair at the United Center. Coach Q, who led Blackhawks to three Cups, got as much love as you'd expect, and he seemed to appreciate every bit of it.
Also, the tribute video was pretty great, especially because it showed that there may not be a person in sports who can transition from insanely terrifying to incredibly cuddly easier than Coach Q.
Quote of the week
While streaming some "NHL 20" this week, Evgeny Kuznetsov was asked about his preferred soft drink. To fully appreciate his answer and reaction to the question, you have to be aware of the offseason he had last summer.
— debil (@DadBologna) January 15, 2020
The Beautiful Game moment of the week
I would die for Ms. Tank.
The beautiful game pic.twitter.com/GkXNKaKoID
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 17, 2020