PITTSBURGH — The Blue Jackets haven't won in regulation at PPG Paints Arena since Nov. 13, 2015.
That winless streak continued Tuesday. Columbus took a 1-0 lead just one minute into the game on a wrist shot off the rush from forward Johnny Gaudreau and stayed in front for the remainder of the period, but the tides turned in the ensuing 40 minutes.
The Penguins tied the game just 1:15 into the second period when Bryan Rust poked a rebound underneath goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, and it took them just 47 seconds to take the lead after that with the first of Sidney Crosby's two goals. Crosby scored his second on the power play midway through the second period.
Pittsburgh didn't add another goal until a partial empty-netter with under four minutes left, but it didn't matter as the Blue Jackets were unable to find a way back into the game. They lost 4-1, dropping to 8-14-2 on the season with just 18 points. They are in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Elvis Merzlikins returns for Blue Jackets after missing six games with hip injury
Merzlikins was injured during the Nov. 15 game against the Flyers and was expected to miss one to two weeks with a hip injury. It ended up being three weeks between games as he returned to the net Tuesday, making 30 saves on 34 shots.
He was officially charged with a goal against on the Penguins' fourth goal of the night, but he was on his way out of the net for an extra attacker when Pittsburgh gained control of the puck and aimed for the wide-open net. Merzlikins scrambled backward and attempted to make a play for the puck, but he wasn't able to get settled before Teddy Blueger scored the final goal of the game.
Four goals against isn't a goalie's dream stat line, but the first three goals were not solely Merzlikins' responsibility, in coach Brad Larsen's view.
"The first one, we get beat to the net, a little bit of a scramble," Larsen said. "The (third) one, it is what it is, it goes off us. (Second) one there, it’s a bang-bang play. There’s a mistake in there. But he made some big saves for us. He kept (the Penguins' lead) at two for us there a few times where they could’ve extended that lead."
Larsen challenged the third goal for goaltender interference despite the puck deflecting in off the stick of defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, because he believed Crosby's presence just inside the crease prevented Merzlikins from fully extending his leg and potentially making the save. The officials disagreed and the goal stood.
"You just live with the call," Larsen said. "I would call it again. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it to go our way."
Merzlikins has been shaky in many of his starts this season, so while Tuesday's game wasn't a perfect performance, he appeared more stable in the net than he's been and showed signs of progress. For his first game in three weeks, Merzlikins said he felt good on the ice — after he shook off some early-game nerves.
"I felt again like in my first game here in this building, a little shaky," Merzlikins said. "Then in my head I just started talking to myself like, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s already four or five years that I’m here. Calmed myself down and tried just to get that flow, to get back to the game. Practice is one thing but a game, everybody’s flying."
Blue Jackets wipe away strong first period with poor second period in Pittsburgh
It's becoming a theme for these Blue Jackets: a solid opening 20 minutes, but an inability to sustain that effort throughout the game.
"Seems to be the story here," forward Cole Sillinger said. "We just have to play a full 60 minutes, play consistent. We talked about it. We knew they were going to up their game for the second and third. It showed. They did."
Gaudreau's early goal set the tone for a strong period for the Blue Jackets. The Penguins began to push back in the latter portion of the frame, though the Blue Jackets were able to hold them off the scoresheet and generate several scoring chances of their own. But they were also unable to score on any of those additional chances, and that came back to haunt them in the second period.
The moment the red light went on behind Merzlikins after Rust tied the game, the crowd at PPG Paints Arena could sense that their team was back in control. Crosby scored what proved to be the game-winning goal just 47 seconds later, and that was all the Penguins needed to re-establish themselves as the better team in the game.
"You’ve got to learn from it," forward Sean Kuraly said. "The good teams are never done. A good period, hate to say it, doesn’t mean (anything). We’ve got to erase the good and bad periods from our mind. Have to move on and you have to play 60 minutes in this game or you’re not going to win games."
Larsen was particularly frustrated with what he felt were self-inflicted wounds in the final 40 minutes of the game.
"We hurt ourselves a lot," Larsen said. "They’re going to get their opportunities. We just find a way to sting ourselves."
Kirill Marchenko, Tim Berni make NHL debuts with Blue Jackets
Forward Kirill Marchenko, the Blue Jackets' selection at No. 49 overall in the 2018 draft, made his long-awaited NHL debut Tuesday. Marchenko was sent to AHL Cleveland from training camp so he could spend more time adjusting to the North American style of play from the slower-paced play in Russia.
Marchenko made that adjustment quickly, posting eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points in his first 16 games as a North American pro. Along the way, he improved his play without the puck, which he said was a focus of the coaching staff in Cleveland. Tuesday, he skated 6:16 at even strength and 3:47 on the power play with two shots, two attempts blocked, two hits, one missed shot and one blocked shot.
He began the game on a line with Sillinger and Yegor Chinkahov and also skated a handful of shifts with Gaudreau and Kent Johnson in the third period.
"Not bad," Larsen said of Marchenko's debut. "There’s some up and down. We lost a little bit of rhythm in that game with some kills and power play stuff. But he had some good shifts in there."
Defenseman Tim Berni also made his debut Tuesday, in place of Jake Christiansen alongside Erik Gudbranson on the second defensive pair. Berni played 13:39, including 31 seconds on the penalty kill. According to Natural Stat Trick, the vast majority of those minutes were against the Penguins' top two lines, including over six minutes against Crosby's line.
Natural Stat Trick's data shows that Berni was on the ice for 19 shot attempts for the Blue Jackets and seven against, meaning that when he was on the ice, nearly 75% of the shot attempts were in favor of the Blue Jackets. Berni was also whistled for a penalty shot in the third period, but Merzlikins made the save on Blueger to prevent the penalty shot from being Berni's lasting memory from his NHL debut.
"Thought Tim Berni had a real good game back there," Larsen said. "We’re asking a lot of him. He’s going against (Evgeni) Malkin and Crosby pretty much every shift for his first NHL game. There’s some positives there, absolutely."
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Blue Jackets lose 4-1 to Penguins, Elvis Merzlikins back from injury