Korpi is taking center stage.
A nearly three-week competition between Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins ended on Sunday with John Tortorella naming the 26-year-old, five-year NHL veteran as the Columbus Blue Jackets’ starting goaltender for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“Korpi's in,” Tortorella said on Sunday. “I'm not explaining it, so don't even go there. They're both capable. We decided on Korpi.”
"We're not in the bubble if it wasn't for [Korpi and Elvis]. They both had a lot to do with this team getting here. They both are very capable. We have decided on Korpi for Game 1." - Torts#CBJ | @TelhioCU pic.twitter.com/zsDjfGSsqR— x-Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) August 2, 2020
Korpisalo will be in the net on Sunday to begin a five-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. As the starter before a knee injury in the last week of December that necessitated surgery sidelined him, he’ll aim to regain whatever momentum he can find to take into his first postseason start as an NHL goalie.
Facing a Maple Leafs offensive attack headed by Auston Matthews (47 goals, 33 assists), Mitch Marner (16 goals, 51 assists), John Tavares (26 goals, 34 assists) and William Nylander (31 goals, 28 assists) that finished the regular season third in the NHL with 3.39 goals scored per game, the challenge for Korpisalo will undoubtedly be stiff. However, based on how he performed before the mid-season injury forced him out of action, he’ll be up to the challenge.
With Sergei Bobrovsky gone to the Florida Panthers, Korpisalo took over as the starting goaltender to open the 2019-20 season and responded to the opportunity as well as anybody could’ve hoped. Starting a career-high 35 games in a shortened season, he had a 19-12-5 record with a 0.911 save percentage and 2.60 goals allowed per game.
If Korpisalo can carry that stellar play into the “bubble” in Toronto, he could hang onto the starting job for the duration of the postseason. Earlier this week, however, coach John Tortorella left the door open for both he and Merzlikins to see action versus the Maple Leafs.
“I really feel in a five-game series, I think they both will probably play,” Tortorella said on 97.1’s Carpenter and Rothman Show on Wednesday. “I just have a funny feeling that's the way it's going to work. I'm not going to hesitate to do that if I need be.”
Korpisalo will enter the series with the Maple Leafs coming off of Thursday’s exhibition with the Boston Bruins when he recorded 11 saves, not allowing any goals in 30 minutes. It was his first game action since March, when he played five games after recovering from a knee injury suffered in an overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 29.
Both Seth Jones and Nick Foligno responded to the starting goalie announcement on Sunday morning, too. Here are their full responses.
- Jones: “Both guys did a phenomenal job this year. Korpi started for us and was an All-Star this year. I think a lot of people forget that, how great he played for us up until Christmas time. Then Elvis came in and took over from there when Korpi got hurt. Both of them won a lot of games for us, stole a lot of games for us. They both played outstanding and were really the backbone of our team. So I can see for a coaching staff, for Torts, how tough that would be to make a decision. But we're comfortable with both guys in the net.”
- Jones: “We're extremely comfortable, and both goalies played a huge part in our success this year. It's just a tough situation, I would say. There's only one goalie that can play, at the end of the day. That's a coach's decision. By no means is Elvis out of the picture. You never know what can happen in a series and how momentum can take it. I know Elvis will stay ready. He's a competitor. Every day in practice, he's one of our most competitive guys. I know he'll be ready to go if his name's called upon. But for right now, it's Korpi, and I know he's going to play well.”
- Foligno: “I just think (Merzlikins) understands. Korpi's paid his dues. It's not to knock Elvis and what he's accomplished, but Korpi's been at it. He's earned this opportunity. I think we're all excited about that chance for him and full-on knowing that Elvis is fully capable of stepping in and playing. I think that's the luxury we have and that's the hard decision that thankfully the coaches make and not us, and that we have two great goalies and we believe so strongly in both of them and we're excited to get going with Korpi here and make sure we hit the ground running.”
- Foligno: “I just think you saw the capabilities of Korpi given the reins, and I think his calmness. He played like an All-Star goalie, (which is) the reason why he was picked as one. And I think it just shows Elvis' mindset. He jumped into a really tough situation and just ran with it. I don't think a lot of guys in this league could do that and play the way he did and kept us in the race. I think just for us, we see the growth of both of those players. Probably the two biggest question marks going into the year with the departure of (Sergei Bobrovsky), and they answered the call tenfold. They were our backbone. They were the biggest part of our success this year. Full confidence to both those guys. I think they should feel great about themselves and how they're going to be a big part of this playoff run.”
To begin the five-game series, Korpisalo and the Blue Jackets will face Toronto at 8 p.m. Sunday in a fan-free environment at Scotiabank Arena.