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Practice Report: Kivlenieks sees hard work pay off with call to NHL

Blue Jackets swap one Latvian netminder for another over weekend

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Matiss Kivlenieks hasn't followed a straight path to the NHL, but he's made it. 

The 23-year-old Latvian goaltender was called up from Columbus on Wednesday and will serve as Joonas Korpisalo's backup tonight vs. Arizona - and likely do the same for Saturday's tilt at Colorado and Tuesday's contest at Montreal. 

It's a deserved call-up - he's 5-1-1 this year with AHL Cleveland - but one that was also done to get Elvis Merzlikins games with the Monsters. But for Kivlenieks, even with no NHL playing time guaranteed, the chance to spend time with the big club for the first time in his career is exciting. 

"I was surprised but really excited and happy," he said. "Obviously it's a lot different here. I love every second of it." 

Kivlenieks was told of his promotion Wednesday after he was in net for Cleveland's win at Grand Rapids in a morning game. He hopped on a plane and arrived along with Monsters defenseman Adam Clendening around midnight and was on the ice for the first time at today's morning skate. 

So far this season, Kivlenieks has started seven times and has posted a 2.37 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, the best numbers of his three-year AHL career. He's also formed a standout goaltending duo along with Veini Vehvilainen as the Monsters are off to an 8-3-0-1 start. 

"I think (my game) is a lot better than the years before, and I'm more confident," he said. "I think overall we're playing really, really well so far and just have to keep going and good things will happen." 

Kivlenieks hails from Riga, Latvia, but came to North America in 2013-14 to play junior hockey in Edina, Minn. Over a four-year span, he worked himself up from the Minnesota Junior Hockey League, a Tier III league, to the USHL, the nation's top junior league. 

He spent one year in the USHL and dominated, earning league MVP honors in 2016-17 when he posted a 1.85 goals-against average and .935 save percentage with Sioux City. From there, the Blue Jackets signed him, and the plan was for Kivlenieks to serve as a backup and learn the pro game in his rookie season. 

Instead, because of injuries and the establishment of Korpisalo as the CBJ's backup, Kivlenieks was thrown to the wolves a bit, playing 43 games with a 3.21 GAA and .891 save percentage. Then, last year, he was hurt for much of the campaign, playing just 14 games with Cleveland and eight more with Kalamazoo of the ECHL just to get time and find his game. 


Now, he's gone from the rinks of the Coast to getting ready to suit up in an NHL arena tonight for the first time. 

"Obviously the years before, there have been ups and downs, but everybody has them," he said. "You just have to find a way to work through it, just keep working and try to find and enjoy the game in those moments when everything is not going the way you want it to go.  

"It's a process, and I'm happy everything has been working out so far." 

Merzlikins heads down: Obviously, if one goalie comes up, that means one has to go down, and in this case that means Merzlikins is headed to Cleveland to play. 

The 25-year-old rookie from Latvia via Switzerland has played in just four games (three starts) this year, posting a 3.91 GAA and .882 save percentage. After his career-opening 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh, though, he's played much better, manning the net for a pair of overtime losses vs. Chicago and St. Louis. 

But with Korpisalo having established himself as the starter, finding games for Merzlikins has been tough. The Blue Jackets are in the midst of a four-week span without a back-to-back, and Merzlikins will have a chance to get playing time and experience as Cleveland plays home games Friday, Saturday and Tuesday. From there, if all goes according to plan, he would likely return to the Blue Jackets.

"I look at the schedule here, it's still pretty spread out," head coach John Tortorella said. "We made the decision that we're going to ride Korpi here because I do think Korpi has earned the No. 1 goalie, and you have to try to get that No. 1 goalie into a flow as you're playing these games here. 

"It's a perfect opportunity for us to let him run with it a bit here, and the way the games stacked up in Cleveland, with (CBJ goaltending coach) Manny (Legace) being there too, it worked out perfectly to help this guy in the process of trying to learn the North American game. It's a really good thing." 

Tortorella said he's seen Merzlikins improving in each start - as well as through practice - but there's still work to do as the goaltender gets used to playing here, in part because of the higher speed, better talent and smaller rink found in North American hockey. 

Merzlikins has treated his debut this year as the chance he's waited for to compare his game to the world's best, and while he was disappointed to head to Cleveland, it should be good in the long run for his development. 

"He wants to be the guy," Tortorella said. "He has a competitive spirit about him that I love. I wouldn't expect him to think any other way than, 'I want to play,' but in the big picture as far as his career is concerned, he's gotta go through this process. And we as an organization have to use these situations the best we can to try to help him." 

Goals galore: Before the team stepped onto the Gila River Arena ice for practice this morning, the Blue Jackets coaches had a video presentation for the squad. 

There was no popcorn, but on a screen set up in the locker room, the coaches played a loop of about 40 goals the team's players have scored both this year and in the past couple years. With Columbus moored in a goal-scoring slump that includes just five goals in the last four games, it was a reminder that there is the talent in the room to put the puck in the net.  

"Just visualize and see the team scoring goals and how we score them," winger Oliver Bjorkstrand said. "Sometimes it can help, and hopefully it does." 

Tortorella said there wasn't any X's and O's talk during the video session, just the loop of pucks going into the net. 

"It's one of the most intriguing things for me as a coach is the mental mindset, the mind, how you get them to play with confidence," Tortorella said. "As I've always said, you can't peel the scalp back and push a button in the brain and say, 'You have confidence now.' We have to try to help them feel good about themselves." 

Texier returns: Thursday night's game will mark the return of Alexandre Texier, the 20-year-old French rookie who has two goals on the season including an overtime winner.  

Texier injured his knee 12 days ago in a loss at Philadelphia when he got tangled up with Flyers forward Chris Stewart and has not played in the past four games. While he obviously would rather have been on the ice than watching in the press box, he said that has allowed him to see the game from a different perspective. 

"You can see from upstairs that you have enough space," he said. "You have to skate when you get a puck, you have to skate it first before you make some plays. From upstairs, you can see that. During the game, you feel like everything is tight, so it was a good thing for me." 

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