“I’m happy for him. It’s Elvis, he has a shutout in Vegas. That should be your headline.”
Those were the words of Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella after his team defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-0 on Saturday night. The win puts the Blue Jackets in a points tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.
But as Tortorella said, the story here was the play of goaltender Elvis Merzlikins.
Think for a second how much the narrative has changed with the Blue Jackets goalie situation in a matter of 13 days. It was on Dec 29 when the team lost All-Star goaltender Joonas Korpisalo to injury during a shootout against the Chicago Blackhawks. Now what was going to happen? Merzlikins hadn’t won a game. Their backup Matiss Kivlenieks has never appeared in a regular season game. How would the Blue Jackets ever find success in this dire situation?
Well, in those 13 days, all Merzlikins has done has helped lead his team to the cusp of the playoff race by showing signs of the goaltender he could become. He has gone 5-2 with a 1.88 goals against and a .943 save percentage. That’s just 13 goals allowed in his seven starts. He’s picked right up where Korpisalo left off and the Blue Jackets haven’t missed a step.
Merzlikins was particularly good Saturday night against the Golden Knights. He stopped all 27 shots he faced including many when the Blue Jackets didn’t even have a shot on goal for stretches. It took Columbus almost nine minutes of game time to get their first shot on goal. Then again in the third period the Blue Jackets had a stretch without a shot. They had just nine shots on goal the final 40 minutes.
But you could just tell Merzlikins was locked in. This was his night on the big stage. It looked like he belonged in that moment. It wasn’t too big for the showman. He was in position all night to make the saves he needed to make.
That’s what the Blue Jackets have been waiting for. They knew the talent was there. They knew there’d be an adjustment period. But they also knew the potential he has. On this night, it all came together in the most glorious way.
After the game, in grand Elvis style, he broke out his “guitar” and strutted some notes to Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. The showman is starting to show himself and is endearing himself to a fan base.
What This Means Moving Forward
Elvis has responded when called upon. What does it mean moving forward especially when Korpisalo is ready to return?
Korpisalo has already been ruled out of the All-Star Game due to his knee injury so this is Elvis’ show for the foreseeable. He’s earned this opportunity and will continue to see the lion’s share of the starts. The Blue Jackets have four of their next five at home leading up to the bye and All-Star Game with just one back-to-back situation.
The big thing though is that a question seems to be answered. The team needed to see if Elvis could handle being a number one so soon given the situation. He’s left no doubt about that. He’s earning more trust as we go. It means that they don’t have to run Korpisalo into the ground when he’s ready to return. They can have a more regular goalie rotation if they choose to, a true 1A/1B situation.
Make no mistake. Korpisalo is still the number one goalie on the Blue Jackets. But we will likely see the starts split more evenly especially trying to ease Korpisalo back in.
This is no longer a dilemma for the team. Had Elvis struggled then the Blue Jackets would have had a fascinating decision to make. But Merzlikins has answered the call. No more of this needing to go to the AHL just to get some work in. They each can now focus on the task at hand which is playing in the pressure of a playoff race.
Saturday night was all about Elvis stealing the show on the Vegas Strip. He’s in his groove piling on wins in the standings. His teammates are doing their part to make life easier on him as well. Each are doing their part to make this thing work while they continue to recover from injuries.
Elvis’ next job is to keep this level of play up consistently. With Boston and Carolina up next, he’ll get his chance to do that against excellent competition. He’ll need to be good in order for the Blue Jackets to win those games. He’s ready to show he can win those too.
The Elvis Merzlikins’ experience is in full swing now. If he continues to have nights like Saturday, who knows where the Blue Jackets could eventually go? Perhaps the playoffs isn’t a stretch after all.