If coach John Tortorella is leaning one way or another, he’s doing a bang-up job to obfuscate it.
On Wednesday, he again said it’s a “coin flip” as to whether Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo will man the goal for the Columbus Blue Jackets when they face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the five-game Stanley Cup Qualifier series. Heck, he even claimed he hasn’t watched them at all during practices, relying heavily on goaltending coach Manny Legace’s opinions in meetings. He’s given them equal reps during the first three training camp practices, too.
One thing he’s sure about? His confidence level in whoever skates onto the ice for the Aug. 2 series opener.
“I was worried going into the season. I wasn't sure what it was going to be,” Tortorella said. “If someone else in this organization says they weren't, they're lying to you.”
No longer does he have that feeling.
Neither Merzlikins nor Korpisalo has ever played a minute of postseason action in the NHL. Yet Tortorella said he feels significantly more confident about how they’ll perform in the Qualifiers than he did about how they’d perform early in the regular season when he didn’t realize the level they’d each reach.
“We're of one of the 12 teams in the East playing now in the summer if our goaltending doesn't carry us,” Tortorella said. “They were the backbone of our team. Each one of them took a part of the season and really stood in there for us. It's exciting to see. That's why I say to you guys, I'm not sure who's going to start this series because they're both deserving of it. I have to go on what they look like now.”
Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo got a chance to address the media on Wednesday afternoon, offering a look into how they approached the break from play and view the training camp competition.
On how much his life has changed in the past year: “Changed very much. Quarantine was pretty boring. I was trying to draw. I was trying to figure out new things and trying to learn something about myself new, so that part was fun. I got engaged. I got married as well (in Columbus). We got married, but then it wasn't the right time to announce that because there was COVID and then there was the protests, so I was kind of waiting to announce that a little bit later. I almost got a second puppy. There was a lot of new things. But otherwise, I'm happy. It was hard. It was hard to try to stay in shape because in my apartment, I couldn't work out that well, so there was just literally basic stuff. Just stretches and maybe go out for a run, but still I didn't want to risk it and go run. It was kind of weird and boring a little bit.”
On how he felt in the first few days of training camp: “I was lucky that I stayed here, so I was practicing already with Manny two weeks before the training camp started, so I kind of already felt it a little bit more the puck. So starting the camp was good. It's hard. So that's really good. It gets you tired but at the same time gets you working really hard, which is good. Looking forward to seeing what's going to happen in the future.”
On how his play late in the season aids him during the competition: “Of course from my side and even from his side, you want to play. I'm not focusing now on being the No. 1. I'm not focusing on not destroying Korpi but something on that way. I'm not focusing on that. I'm focusing just to give my best and to help my team, if I'm going to play, to give the team and the club the wins, which we really need. So I think even from his side, we are here together. We are friends and we are trying to help the club and the organization to win. So that's the most important thing, I think.”
On how much more confidence he feels now compared to last fall’s training camp: “Now, I don't feel anything new. I already played games in the NHL. I know what I'm capable of. I know what kind of goalie I am. Manny did great work. If I had to compare myself now to the first training camp, I think it's completely two different goalies. I feel good. Right now I feel good. I'm not focusing on anything else. Just maybe my first – well, I'm not going to even say playoffs because until the playoffs we have to do step by step. In those games, it's going to be new for me so I'm not going to try to put any pressure on myself because it's going to be new. It's something that I have to discover and live it and see how it's going to be.”
On if he’s thought about starting Game 1 in the playoffs: “I mean, I know myself, how I am in the playoffs. I know that I'm capable of handling the pressure really good. Obviously it's the NHL. It's different. It's, again, going to be something new. But even if the pressure's going to be heavy, I know what I have to do to handle it. I did that job three, four times since Switzerland for Lugano when things were really, really tough. We found together the way, but I knew what I had to do for the team to get out of a bad situation and get through it. I'm not really worrying about that. I'm just going to keep working hard now in practices and find myself as quickly as I can.”
On the biggest challenge getting back on the ice: “I think obviously my biggest challenge is to get into the playoffs, like I said, step by step. I want to get in the playoffs and then help the team and the organization get as far as we can.”
On how scrimmages can help him get up to speed: “We're going to play and we're going to see. It's something new for myself. I think for everybody it's going to be a new experience to live. Even playing without the fans is going to be something new. It's about the time and just get used to it. But at the end of the day, we have to just play hockey and focus on that.”
On how much he’s anticipating this opportunity: Really excited, obviously. Never played any playoff hockey in the NHL. Looking forward to it. Going to fight for a spot being the starting goalie. It's a great chance there.”
On his friendship with Merzlikins: “We used to be roommates in the development camps. We clicked right away. Obviously came here, and now we see (each other) daily and get to know him a little better. It's been really nice having a great guy next to me in the locker room. It's been fun.”
On whether he remembers conversations with Merzlikins at the development camp: “No, but I remember our English was so bad. I'd just try to say something, but the other guys had no idea what the other guy said, so we were just laughing all the time probably.”
On if he talked to Merzlikins about playing in the NHL back then: “Obviously back then we were like 18 or something, still dreaming about someday playing in the NHL, working toward it. Us today, we are both here and playing in the NHL is pretty cool. It's been a long way. We're here. Glad for it.”
On how he’s approaching this competition: “I don't think it changes in any way like we did in the regular season. Every day we go in there and try to be better than the other guy. A healthy competition, which is awesome. Obviously right now we go day by day, try to work our game conditioning and all the little details here. It's fun.”
On the pressure of playing in the first game: “Obviously it's a five-game series, so there's no time to play any old game, so you've got to be ready at Day 1.”
On what made the break different from a typical offseason: “That was way different. There's no chance to get on the ice. Usually, I go on the ice pretty early during summertime. I had to do my quarantine and didn't have a chance to do too much. That was a lot different. You have to find your own ways to get some good practice off the ice. Obviously I had my coach in Finland as well. A little bit different, but I got through it.”
On the biggest challenge when back on the ice: “I will say there's all these little details, but I think the biggest thing is just the timing on stuff. That's something you get from the practice games and scrimmages, which is good we have it tomorrow.”