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Injury to Korpisalo means Merzlikins is latest next man up

Blue Jackets will try to keep strong play going even after injury to goaltender

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

When asked last night about the injury suffered by Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, team captain Nick Foligno let out a long, audible sigh.  

It was in that moment you could tell just how much the Blue Jackets have enjoyed playing in front of the Finnish netminder and also how much his success has meant to the team. Over the past five seasons, the Blue Jackets have watched Korpisalo go from unknown to backup to a full-time starter and now an All-Star.  

Now, they'll have to watch Korpisalo rehab a knee injury that head coach John Tortorella says will keep him out for "weeks," just as he was proving he has what it takes to be a No. 1 goalie at the highest level. 

"It sucks," Foligno said. "Just how well he was playing, and to see him go out. But that's like anyone that goes out. You want your team to be in the lineup and the guys that you know can really help your team, and he's a guy that has done that for us all year long.  

"He's answered a lot of critics and we've always believed in him, so it just sucks to see him not be able to continue his strong play." 

Video: John Tortorella meets with the media after practice

Korpisalo has been with the Blue Jackets for the past four seasons, ever since a rash of injuries forced him to start 30 games in the 2015-16 season. To this point, that was his best campaign, as Korpisalo went 16-11-4 that year with a 2.60 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. 

The past three seasons, he's watched as Sergei Bobrovsky was the top option, with Korpisalo starting just 51 games over the past trio of campaigns. This year, with Bobrovsky's departure to Florida -- ironically, the team the Blue Jackets host Tuesday night on New Year's Eve -- he has stepped up and turned in a tremendous season to this point. 

Korpisalo sits tied for third in the NHL with 17 wins, part of a season in which he is 17-10-4 with a 2.49 GAA and .913 save percentage. He's been on particular fire since the start of November, posting a 2.11 GAA with a .926 save percentage in 22 appearances, but he was injured while allowing a goal to Chicago's Jonathan Toews during a shootout Sunday night. 

After Toews' goal snuck through Korpisalo's legs, he stood up and flexed his right leg, then needed help from an official to make it to the Blue Jackets' bench. Trainers had to help him down the tunnel, and weighed down by his gear, he needed to be wheeled to the team's locker room for evaluation.  

"I feel bad for the kid," Tortorella said Monday. "I do. He's been kicked about here for a number of years waiting for his opportunity, has stepped up and just gotten better and better as we've gone through here. I feel bad for him because I just think he has progressed, how he handles himself, how he presents himself. The bottom line is lately he has taken another step in making big saves at key times as we've talked about throughout the process with him." 

With Korpisalo injured, though, the team's next-man-up mentality now moves to the goal crease. Rookie Elvis Merzlikins is expected to get the nod in net against the Panthers, while fellow Latvian goalie Matiss Kivlenieks was summoned on emergency recall to serve as his backup. 

Merzlikins starred in recent years with HC Lugano of the Swiss NLA, as well as while performing with the Latvian national team, but his introduction to NHL hockey has been up and down. In nine games (eight starts), Merzlikins is yet to earn a win, holding an 0-4-4 record to go with a 3.41 GAA and .889 save percentage. 

Tortorella had spoken multiple times of late about needing to provide Merzlikins with more of an opportunity to show his skills, as the goalie boasts excellent athelticism and confidence to match. But his first cracks at NHL hockey also have been inconsistent at times, leading to only sporadic playing time given Korpisalo's rise. 

Now, Merzlikins has his chance and will have an opportunity to run with it. As a result, he requested to the media Monday that he be given a chance to focus, delivering a short statement before ending his interview session.  

Video: Elvis on making the most of the opportunity

"I want to just focus and I just want to focus on my moment," Merzlikins said. "I'm really sorry for Korpi because he doesn't deserve it at all. I think I was more pumped up than him on the saves that he was doing. He was playing amazing. It's just bad luck in this sport. 

"I want to live in my world, the goalie's world. There is a lot of maybe pressure on me. This is just another another pressure on me. I don't want it. I have a lot of my own pressure. I have nine losses if I am not wrong.  

"This is my moment. With that, I want to just try to focus on it, try to play game-by-game and try to finally get in my skin and feel like myself." 

The Blue Jackets go into Tuesday's game riding a 10-game point streak, and Tortorella said he expects Merzlikins to embrace the opportunity to keep it going. 

"I think it's right in his wheelhouse," the head coach said. "His attitude, his being, his swagger, which I really like, I think it's right in his wheelhouse to come in here. He sees how this team has been playing. He sees how Korpi has been playing. I think he's ready to jump at it." 

The hope is Merzlikins will be able to hold the fort and perhaps even excel in Korpisalo's stead. Given his pedigree, including twice being named the top goaltender in Switzerland, Merzlikins would seem to have it in him. 

Time will tell, though, how things will work out. In the meantime, while teammates are ready to see what Merzlikins has to offer, they also can't help but feel bad for Korpisalo.  

"It's brutal," Riley Nash said. "He's been the guy all year. His game has never wavered. He's been our backbone, even when our guys in front of him weren't playing our best. He was always there. In a year like this, where he has a chance to start and is playing what I think is some of the best goaltending in the league, it definitely stings." 

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