VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Elvis Merzlikins made 26 saves in his return after missing four games with a concussion, and the Columbus Blue Jackets held off the Vancouver Canucks for a 2-1 victory Sunday night.
“It was hard to get back in the game,” said the 25-year-old rookie, who boasts a .923 save percentage through 33 games this season. “I don’t know if Vancouver is a really quick team or it was just the feeling that in five minutes I was like, ‘Wow, it’s really fast, the game is.’”
Emil Bemstrom and Eric Robinson scored for Columbus (33-22-15), which moved two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders for the top Eastern Conference wild card.
Elias Pettersson got the goal for the Canucks (35-27-6), who have dropped five of six. They are tied with the Predators and Jets for the second wild card in the West. Vancouver currently holds the spot with one more win than Nashville and a game in hand on Winnipeg.
“We’re in games,” said Tyler Toffoli, who led the Canucks with 10 shot attempts. “We feel like we should be winning, and we’re playing good. But it’s just the time of the year where everybody’s playing good — if not great — and finding ways to win.
“We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and come together to say, ‘It’s time to start playing great hockey and not just good hockey, because it’s that time of year.’”
Columbus had just 22 shots on Canucks netminder Thatcher Demko after piling up 46 in a 4-1 loss to Edmonton on Saturday night.
The Blue Jackets were 0 for 2 on the power play, and Vancouver was unable to score on its three man advantages.
Following a sluggish first period that saw Vancouver outshoot Columbus 6-3, the Blue Jackets opened the scoring 7:18 into the second.
Pierre-Luc Dubois outmuscled Alex Edler for a loose puck along the end boards, then fed the puck into the slot. A wide-open Bemstrom beat Demko to the stick side for his 10th of the season.
“I’m trying to find those open spaces on the ice,” Bemstrom said. “I got one one-timer today, but I have to keep finding that ice.”
With five minutes left in the second, Toffoli got Vancouver’s best chance to that point, skating into the offensive zone with plenty of open ice. Merzlikins got a piece of Toffoli’s shot before it deflected off the post.
Toffoli also took a shot that was scooped off the goal line after he beat Merzlikins.
“I should have had three goals at least,” Toffoli said. “But you’ve just got to move forward here.”
Robinson extended the lead to 2-0 on the Blue Jackets’ 10th shot of the game, beating Demko with a slap shot for his seventh goal with 28 seconds left in the middle period.
The Canucks finally solved Merzlikins on their 21st shot, when Pettersson burst out of the penalty box after serving an elbowing minor and slid the puck five-hole for his 27th of the season at 8:19 of the third.
“I have my elbow out, but it’s not my intention to elbow him,” Pettersson said about his penalty against Robinson. “He started hitting my back and my elbow is out. He basically skates into my arm.
“I was trying to be positive, so I just tried to use my anger as fuel.”
The loss gave Vancouver a 1-2-0 record on its current homestand, which wraps up Tuesday against the Islanders.
NOTES: Ryan Murray returned to the Columbus lineup after missing Saturday’s game in Edmonton. … Brock Boeser skated with the Canucks on Sunday morning for the first time since sustaining a rib cartilage injury on Feb. 8. His return date remains unknown.
Blue Jackets: Host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.
Canucks: Host the New York Islanders tonight.