When the season started, the Columbus Blue Jackets figured they either would be battling for a playoff berth or would have one wrapped up by the time the season-ending series against the visiting Detroit Red Wings came up.
Yet when the Red Wings arrive at Columbus for two games starting Friday night, the teams will be battling to avoid last place in the Central Division.
Columbus (17-25-12, 46 points) has a one-point lead on the last-place Red Wings (18-27-9, 45) heading into the final two games of the season.
The two teams will play on Friday and Saturday and when those are done, one team will end the 2020-21 season in last place.
Columbus looks like a team that does not want that fate.
Although it appeared last month like a foregone conclusion the Blue Jackets would end up in the division cellar, the team is playing with renewed confidence and has recorded at least a point in their past five (2-0-3) games.
Columbus kept Nashville from clinching a playoff spot Wednesday with a 4-2 victory.
“We are having fun,” Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins said. “For the fans, this is the minimum we can do. We give everything we have in our power for the last games and try to play well and finish well this season as best we can.”
With Joonas Korpisalo injured, Merzlikins could find himself playing the final two games despite them coming on consecutive days.
Merzlikins is 2-0-3 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in his past five games. That includes a 1-0 shutout of Detroit on April 27 in which he made 41 saves and helped snap Columbus’ nine-game losing streak.
He is 1-2-1 against Detroit this season.
Columbus could give one of its young goalie prospects a game. Daniil Tarasov is a highly-regarded prospect who left the KHL and played in four AHL games for Cleveland this season.
Matiss Kivlenieks could also play in one of the two games after spending much of the past four seasons in the AHL. Kivlenieks appeared in six games for Columbus last season, going 1-1-2.
Detroit is coming off a split series against Tampa Bay. The Red Wings have not played since losing 2-1 to the Lightning on Sunday.
The Red Wings are 2-2-2 in their past six games and want to finish the season off strong.
Coach Jeff Blashill said that his team has not “checked out” in these final days and that Detroit’s final practice of the season Thursday had so much energy that it could have been one from the start of the season, not the end.
“It was a really good effort,” Blashill said. “I did not get a sense at all that guys are checked out or that school is over. I think they all recognize that these games are special. Every game you play in the NHL is special, so make the most of it. … Our mentality will be right headed into the game.”
Thomas Greiss could be the starter in the opening game of the series after he took NHL ‘First Star of the Week’ honors by stopping all 66 shots he faced across 130:00 of regulation and overtime to earn two shutouts and a 1-0-1 record.
The last time Greiss and Merzlikins met, Columbus won 1-0 in a shootout on April 27. Greiss followed that game up with a 1-0 shutout win against the Lightning.
Greiss is 0-1-1 against the Blue Jackets this season with a 1.27 GAA and .958 save percentage. Jonathan Bernier is 1-1-0 against Columbus with a 3.59/.882. The two will likely split the games.
–Field Level Media