Elvis Merzlikins usually doesn’t enjoy his first time back on the ice during the offseason, but the Columbus Blue Jackets goalie couldn’t help but smile when he discussed skating in Switzerland this week after being off skates for more than three months.
“I really hate to get back on the ice because usually you can’t catch the puck because you had so much time off,” Merzlikins said Thursday. “Last time I played was in Toronto (when he injured his groin in Game 4 of the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Aug. 7) and that was a long time not catching the puck and the first two weeks, I hate them. I really hate them. I hate when the players, they score and then they even celebrate.
“This is much, much, much better.”
That’s due in large part to the 26-year-old’s maturation and an increased willingness to let things come to him on and off the ice. Last season, his first in the NHL, began 0-4-4 but turned around with a 12-2-0 flourish that included five shutouts and a .953 save percentage.
He finished the season 13-9-8 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Merzlikins didn’t get his first NHL win until Dec. 31, 2019, learning the hard way that trying harder is rarely a recipe for success as a goalie. Playing a position that usually doesn’t allow you to dictate the play, forcing things doesn’t help. Lessons from that difficult start play a role in being able to smile about being back on the ice and should pay off when he returns to Columbus.
For someone whose workout goal is sometimes to go so hard he throws up — “Because when I puke I understand, OK, that’s my limit,” he said — being able to let go sometimes is a big step.
“I feel kind of different this year,” he said. “I feel that I really don’t care that the players score, which is really weird for me because you can ask any goalie coach who I had, I was really [ticked] off, my day was really bad if I had a bad practice because they scored every single shot. They were saying ‘Elvis, this is just the first, second time that you’re on the ice,’ but I didn’t want to understand that. I didn’t want to accept that. This week was easier.”
Merzlikins also was away from the ice for an extended period after the NHL paused last season on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. He stayed in his apartment in Columbus for the four months before training camps opened in July.
Even when the NHL season resumed Aug. 1 in Toronto, the hub city for the Eastern Conference, he was 1-1 in two games during the qualifiers. The Blue Jackets defeated the Maple Leafs then were eliminated in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round. The Blue Jackets’ last game was Aug. 19.
Merzlikins took a quick break after the season while in quarantine and focused on preparing physically for this season, his second in the NHL, before returning to the ice Monday.
He also learned the benefits of relaxing his stance, and how important that can be to preserve his energy and survive the demands of an NHL schedule. He was reminded of just how far he has come during a video review session Thursday with Michael Lawrence, his goalie coach in Lugano, highlighting his evolution on the ice over the past three years.
“You could see he used to get really locked in low and wide, and spread out in his stance,” said Lawrence, who will begin goalie-specific sessions with Merzlikins next week. “His back was straight upright, his weight was on his heels, and he was locked up.”
Narrowing that stance, especially when the play was on the perimeter, gave Merzlikins more access to powerful movements because his legs stayed underneath him more, allowing him to extend more, and helped him look bigger in the net.
The importance of that more-relaxed stance was reinforced by Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace; Merzlikins said he realized it also allowed him to conserve energy by not being tensed up in that lower save stance as often.
“You save your energy because from a wide stance, jumping left and right, you get really tired,” Merzlikins said. “In the NHL, the shots are so quick, so fast, and so many that you can’t waste your energy. [Lawrence] showed me how my position changed, how my feet changed and how I moved differently in that video, and you can really see how wide I was (before) and how much quicker I got and how more stable on the shot line and that was really interesting to see.”
That fits well into his calmer approach, even during those first few times back on the ice.
“You can be relaxed in the net, you’re going to feel more comfortable,” he said. “And I think you’re going to make less mistakes.”