"Elvis gets his first shutout in Vegas...that should be your headline."
John Tortorella had a brief flirtation with the media as an analyst, but we like him better as a coach. Stay in your lane, Torts.
All kidding aside, you could see the genuine happiness on the head coach's face in speaking about Elvis Merzlikins' first career shutout post-game in Las Vegas. Merzlikins hasn't had the easiest of transitions to the NHL (which wasn't unexpected by any means), but the heat got turned up in late December when Joonas Korpisalo went down with a knee injury.
Merzlikins, who hadn't won a game when he was thrust into the No. 1 job, knew he was getting his opportunity–albeit in an unfortunate situation. It was a chance for him, of course, but even bigger was the necessity to carry the torch and keep the Blue Jackets in the playoff race.
He's checked both boxes so far.
Merzlikins improved to 5-2-0 with gaudy numbers (1.88 goals-against average, .943 save%) since taking over for Korpisalo, a run that began with a New Year's Eve win over the Florida Panthers at Nationwide Arena. His strong play rolled right over into the team's west coast trip, which began earlier this week with wins in Los Angeles and Anaheim. Merzlikins was key in those wins as the Blue Jackets stumbled out of the gate, and the game in Los Angeles might have been his best of the trip until Saturday.
The shutout was justly deserved, too. Merzlikins didn't have to be spectacular, but he did his job and made big saves when the Blue Jackets–who were stingy defensively throughout the game–made mistakes.
"He was solid," Tortorella said of Merzlikins. "I think he just let the game come to him. I thought we played really well as a team, and we had breakdowns, Elvis was strong."
Merzlikins said the final three minutes "were the longest of (his) life" as Columbus tried to close out the game and the clean sheet. His victory celebration was a memorable one, too, and Pierre-Luc Dubois joked that Merzlikins had probably been planning it for years.
As he earns more starts and gets more comfortable, you've seen the confidence blossoming in Merzlikins, a stark change from the tough road he had earlier in the season. The timing couldn't be better, either; the Blue Jackets' win in Vegas pulled them into a tie on points (52) with the Philadelphia Flyers for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot, and they would not be in this position without the play of their rookie goaltender.
"That's what you like about him. He's strong mentally," Tortorella said. "He's a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here...but he's handled himself really well. I'm happy for him."