As the Columbus Blue Jackets prepare to meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2019-20 qualifying round, head coach John Tortorella faces what could be a very tough decision: which goalie starts? The best-of-five series will determine which team moves on to the Stanley Cup Playoffs . . . and which becomes a footnote.
Both Jonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have been outstanding this year. And neither has even a minute of playoff experience. Technically the qualifying round is not a “playoff series,” but rather a “play-in” series (the NHL has announced that the actual playoffs won’t begin until after the qualifying round). Regardless of what you call it, any “best-of” series will feel like playoff hockey to the members of the team.
Blue Jackets Goalies by the Numbers
Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins are 6-foot-3 and a bit over 180 pounds, and both are 26 years old. Both were third-round draft picks by Columbus (Korpisalo No. 62 overall in 2012, Merzlikins No. 76 two years later).
Korpisalo spent four years as Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup in Columbus, playing 90 games (starting 81 and coming in as relief nine times). Over the four years, he had a .907 SV%. The two seasons prior to Bobrovsky’s departure as a free agent last summer were the worst of the four, with SV%s of .897 both years and GAAs of 3.32 (2017-18) and 2.95 (2018-19).
Merzlikins, meanwhile, was making a name for himself playing in in the top league in Switzerland for HC Lugano. He also represented his native Latvia in international play, both at the junior and senior levels. Over his last four years in the Swiss A league, he averaged 41 games per year, with a GAA of 2.70 and SV% of .920. While those numbers don’t look stellar by NHL standards, they were good enough to earn the Jacques Plante Trophy as the league’s best goaltender twice.
Columbus Goaltending in 2019-20
Korpisalo began the 2019-20 season as the Blue Jackets’ starter, replacing Bobrovsky, with Merzlikins (in his introduction to North America) as the backup. It was not an auspicious beginning. From October through December, Korpisalo’s record was 17-12-6 (with six of the wins coming in overtime). Merzlikins surrendered seven goals in his first game, lost his first 10 games (half in overtime or shootouts), and ended 2019 with a record of 1-5-5. His SV% was .900. Ouch!
As the pundits say, “Welcome to the NHL.”
But then, on Dec. 29, everything changed. Korpisalo was injured in an overtime period that coach Tortorella said should never have happened (he incurred a hefty fine and warning for his post-game rant). Merzlikins entered the game, finished the overtime, and lost in a shootout.
With Korpisalo requiring knee surgery, the reins were handed to the Latvian with the losing record. Merzlikins quickly found his form, surrendering only one goal in the annual New Year’s Eve game (a 4-1 win over Bobrovsky and the Panthers), and racking up a record of 9-2-0 through the end of January. He cooled off a bit in February, with a record of 4-3-4, but between Jan. 11 and Feb. 7, he had five shutouts in a span of eight games.
While Korpisalo was on the shelf, Merzlikins was backed up by fellow Latvian Matiss Kivlenieks. He appeared in seven games, with a record of 1-1-2 (GAA 2.95, SV% .898).
Korpisalo was healthy enough to return before the end of February, with a record of 2-2-1 through the unexpected end of the regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Merzlikins won his only start after his partner’s return.
For the season, Korpisalo’s record was 19-12-5, with two shutouts. Merzlikins, despite his poor start, ended 2019-20 with an official record of 13-9-8, with five shutouts. Korpisalo’s winning percentage was .597, and Merzlikins ended the year at .567. The Blue Jackets’ winning percentage as a team was .579. That’s exactly the winning percentage of the Maple Leafs for the season (Toronto will technically be the “home” team for the qualifying round based on tiebreakers).
Columbus vs. Toronto: The 2019-20 Regular Season
Only two of the three scheduled games were played (the third was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic). Both were played in October, way back at the very start of the season. More importantly, Toronto was then coached by Mike Babcock. On Nov. 20, 2019, he was replaced by current coach Sheldon Keefe.
Along with Keefe came a complete strategic makeover of the team. The roster looks pretty much the same since the coaching change, but the team on the ice is almost unrecognizable. The Maple Leafs became a much more up-tempo, go-go-go bunch, relying on the team’s high-end forwards to put the puck in the net.
If you really want the details of Columbus versus Toronto in the 2019-20 regular season, here you go:
On Oct. 4, Toronto beat Columbus 4-1. Toronto’s Mitch Marner had two goals and an assist, John Tavares had a pair of helpers, as did Morgan Rielly; Auston Matthews scored his third of the year in just his second game. The Blue Jackets’ only goal came on the power play, an unassisted goal by Cam Atkinson. Each team had 29 shots. Korpisalo made 25 saves.
On Oct. 21, Columbus won in overtime, 4-3. The Blue Jackets got on the board twice in the first six minutes, scoring shorthanded and even-strength goals. Also in the first period, the Maple Leafs scored shorthanded and at even strength. Toronto had the only goal in the second period, taking a 3-2 lead. A Columbus power-play goal in the middle of the third period tied the game. The Blue Jackets’ Gustav Nyquist ended the game less than two minutes into OT on a penalty shot. Korpisalo had 28 saves.
CBJ Against Other High-Scoring Teams
While the Blue Jackets’ history against Toronto in 2019-20 was minimal, we can look at how the team (and the goalies) did against clubs that scored at a pace similar to the Maple Leafs’ 238 goals during the season. (The Blue Jackets scored only 180 goals.) Included are the 10 highest-scoring teams for the regular season.
|Team||Total Goals||CBJ Record||CBJ Goals For||CBJ Goals Against|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||245||0-0-1||1||2|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||238||1-1-0||5||7|
|New York Rangers||234||1-2-0||5||7|
|Vegas Golden Knights||227||1-1-0||4||2|
|Total||– – –||11-10-3||55||57|
(Note that seven of the 10 teams in the table are from the Eastern Conference. These are teams that stand between the Blue Jackets and the Stanley Cup Final.)
In those games, Korpisalo had a record of 4-6-1, while Merzlikins went 6-4-2 (for those of you doing the math, the missing game was a win credited to Kivlenieks against the Rangers).
After returning from knee surgery on Feb. 24, Korpisalo took over from Merzlikins in the second period after a crash with a teammate got Elvis all shook up (so to speak). Korpisalo started the next game, but was pulled shortly after the midpoint following four goals on 15 shots. (Kivlenieks finished the game.) With starts in three of the four games in March, Korpisalo went 1-1-1, with Merzlikins adding a win in the final game before the pause.
Tough Choice for Blue Jackets’ Torts?
At season end, Merzlikins ranked fifth in the NHL with a GAA of 2.35. Korpisalo was 15th at 2.60. Merzlikins’ SV% of .923 tied for fifth in the league, with Korpisalo at 28th (.911). My colleague Matthew Zator recently ranked the predicted starting goalies for the 24 teams in play for the Stanley Cup this year. He picked Merzlikins as the Blue Jackets starter, and ranked him No. 8. The Maple Leafs presumed starter, Frederik Andersen, was ranked No. 18. (Columbus’s 2018-19 hero-in-goal Bobrovsky was No. 23 of 24.)
This year, it will take 19 victories rather than the usual 16 if the Blue Jackets are to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup. If every series goes the full length, it’s 33 games. That’s a lot of hockey. And having two excellent goalies who could share the load possibly gives Columbus an edge, regardless of who starts Game 1 against Toronto. However, I’ll place my bet with Matthew and guess that Elvis will be in the house!