Knowing Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, there’s no chance Elvis Merzlikins’ ability to do his typical postgame celebration factored into his decision to end the game with him in the net instead of Joonas Korpisalo. Not even a remote possibility.
But because Merzlikins went second, playing the latter half of Columbus’ 4-1 exhibition victory against the Boston Bruins on Thursday evening, the remote viewers – in other words, literally everyone, since fans weren’t allowed in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena – were treated to a semblance of normalcy when the final buzzer sounded.
Merzlikins and Nick Foligno skated toward each other, the rest of their team already headed toward the locker room, and Merzlikins leaped into his teammate’s arms. Foligno, a wide smile on his face, caught the goaltender in his arms and skated to the door, dropping him back down to Earth before they turned and walked back up the tunnel together.
No, what happened in the 60-minute game wasn’t the “real stuff,” as Tortorella called the five-game Stanley Cup Qualifier series waiting for the Blue Jackets on Sunday. But it was hockey. Real-life NHL hockey for the first time in four-and-a-half months.
“We just wanted to get a feel back, not only physically but mentally, things we need to do as a team systems-wise,” Seth Jones said following the win. “It's an exhibition game, so we're not going to look too into it. Obviously the intensity is going to be another level come Game 1 against Toronto on Sunday. But we liked a lot of things we did.”
For the most part, Tortorella said, he thought his team “put in a lot of good minutes” a day after it took part in what he called the best practice of the past two-and-a-half weeks of training camp.
After more than 140 days away from games, Columbus didn’t need to wait long to get into the action.
Liam Foudy sent a backhanded pass to Boone Jenner who knocked in a goal less than five minutes after the puck dropped to begin the game. Afterward, Tortorella noted that Foudy has shown he’s “not afraid” of moments, which is one reason why he has earned a spot in the lineup – though he said he’s unsure where exactly he’ll slot into it.
Late in the first period, Zach Werenski loaded up and scored on a one-timer off of a pass from Cam Atkinson. It was a flash of what he showed during the regular season when he racked up 21 goals, leading all defensemen in the NHL. Eighteen seconds later, Gustav Nyquist increased the lead to 3-0 by sneaking the puck past Tuukka Rask off of a feed from Pierre-Luc Dubois, who Tortorella said “skated very well.”
Columbus’ final goal scored came on a late empty-netter courtesy of Alexandre Texier.
“I think a lot of guys contributed on both sides of the puck,” Cam Atkinson said. “Even before the game, we just wanted to play the right way, make it hard on them, get into our systems, pretty much the way that we're going to have to play against Toronto. It wasn't our best at times, but I thought we took a lot of strides in the right direction. Each one of us is going to have to elevate our play come Sunday. So like I said it's good to have confidence, but we've all got to be aware that we all have to raise it to another level come Sunday.”
The offensive production was especially encouraging for a team that’s caused many to wonder how it’ll score efficiently in the postseason after ranking tied for 27th in the NHL with 2.57 goals scored per game in the regular season.
Defensively, the Blue Jackets similarly impressed – which will have to continue to be the case in order to make a postseason run. They were led once again by Seth Jones, who rejoined Werenski as one of the many formerly injured players who used to pause in action to heal, and allowed only a single goal.
“The thing I liked about our defensive game is not so much the defensive zone,” Tortorella said. “It's being above the puck and just feeling that neutral zone and trying to control them, theirs coming through. I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight. Not only one particular person, but I think our concept was good.”
So, too, were the goaltenders.
Korpisalo got the start – though Tortorella said on Wednesday not to read anything into that – and saved all 11 shots that got sent his way. The All-Star goaltender exited the game midway through the second period to make way for Merzlikins since the coaching staff wanted to get an equal look at both of them in their first game action since March.
“This is one game, one game only,” Korpisalo said. “I tried to do my best. I feel really good. It's not up to me. I'm not making the decision, so I hope for the best. I feel really good.”
A scrambling Merzlikins allowed the first shot he faced to reach the back of the net, with David Pastrnak sending the puck through the five-hole. He settled down, however, accruing 12 consecutive saves to hold the Bruins to their single goal and secure a 4-1 win.
Tortorella said earlier this week that he intends to make a final decision on Saturday of whether to go with Merzlikins or Korpisalo against Toronto. Based on the stellar performance of the duo on Thursday, his mind wasn’t changed.
“It doesn't surprise me what they did tonight,” Tortorella said. “I thought they both played very well. Where it sits when we play on (Sunday), I still don't know.”
He said he plans to meet with the rest of his coaching staff to discuss what they should do before making the final call.
Truly, after so many days of waiting, that’s all that remains. A verdict on who to start at goaltender and the finalization of a few lines. Tortorella has his starting lineup set and knows a couple of lines and pairings. He’s now seen his team play its only exhibition game, winning it by a three-goal margin. There’s not much left to do except make the remaining decisions and gear up to face Toronto.
“You can see the enthusiasm because they're going to be playing games that mean something,” Tortorella said.
He’s right about that. Just go look at Merzlikins and Foligno.