Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins lost "best friend" and teammate Matiss Kivlenieks this summer, and a man wearing a Dallas Stars sweater gave Merzlikins an unwelcome reminder of the tragedy Monday. The 27-year-old Merzlikins said the man taunted him about Kivlenieks, who died at 24 in a July 4 fireworks accident, before the Blue Jackets' 4-1 victory over Dallas.
Columbus and Nationwide Arena security are working to identify the fan, according to The Athletic. Merzlikins used the comment as bulletin board material in the meantime.
"I was expecting a shutout, because I believe in karma," said Merzlikins, who stopped 31 of 32 shots against Dallas. "There are some stupid people in this world. It was really bad what happened in the tunnel when I was walking out. There was a fan from Dallas who [provoked] me about Matiss. After the first period, the three posts that I got, I really [firmly] believed in karma. I saw that [Matiss] was really there."
While Merzlikins didn't appreciate the comment, he says it didn't upset him because "stupid people don't come into my head." A witness of Kivlenieks' death, Merzlikins said the firework that struck his teammate's stomach nearly hit a propane grill that could have blown up him and his then-pregnant wife.
Merzlikins said Kivlenieks "saved" his and his wife's lives, and in August the couple honored Kivlenieks by naming their child Knox Matiss Merzlikins.
Child naming wasn't the only way Merzlikins planned to honor his old teammate.
"I'm gonna win a f------ Vezina for him," Merzlikins, who played with Kivlenieks for two seasons, told The Athletic before the season. "We can't make promises because this is hockey and we don't know how the season can go, but this is my goal. I believe I'm going to reach it. I'm not going to have any limits. I'm just gonna go all-in."
A strong start to the season has Merzlikins positioned well for a Vezina Trophy. The Latvian goaltender has won all four of his starts while stopping 120 of 126 shots for a .952 save percentage. That save percentage ranks just behind San Jose's James Reimer (.980) for second in the NHL.
Columbus honored Kivlenieks before its season-opening 8-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 14. Merzlikins hopes to honor his fellow Latvian with a dominant season, which continues with a 7 p.m. ET game against the New York Rangers on Friday.