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Merzlikins settling into starting role in Blue Jackets net

With first win under his belt, goalie has been excellent since Korpisalo injury

by Jeffrey Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

By now, you've seen it. 

After finishing off his first-ever NHL victory on New Year's Eve, Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins sprinted into the arms of Nick Foligno's leaping bear hug, then spun away to salute the fans, pirouetting on one leg while pumping his fist as Nationwide Arena roared. 

But there's one part of the celebration still to come for the 25-year-old Latvian. 

Mom has to get the puck.  

Merzlikins came into the season speaking of just how important it was for him to deliver the puck from his first win to his mother, Sandra, back in Latvia. Now he just has to do it.  

"When I called (after the win), she was crying," Merzlikins said. "Finally I got that win. Now I should send the puck with UPS express because she's waited a long time. The sooner she gets the puck, the sooner she is going to be happy.

"She's my No. 1 woman. I really love her. For her, it's really important to watch every game. She's not going to sleep any of the nights when I'm playing. She is my crazy mom. I love her." 

There will be a lot more sleepless overnights for Sandra in the coming weeks. With Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo out injured for four-to-six weeks after suffering a knee injury Dec. 29, Merzlikins has immediately gone from the back seat to the spotlight with three straight starts. 

Korpisalo started nine of 10 games for the suddenly red-hot Blue Jackets before his injury, and it was deserved considering how well both he and the team were playing. With how well Korpisalo was playing, head coach John Tortorella said it was difficult for him to find a time to return the net to Merzlikins. 

Now, though, it belongs to the Latvian, who showed off his athleticism and talent while starring in Switzerland's top league as well as the World Championships over past seasons. And when presented with the opportunity, Merzlikins left nothing to chance, focusing so intently over his first few days as the starter that he requested a break from media responsibilities. 

"I asked not to talk because the team was hot," he said. "Korpi was hot, everyone was hot. It's not easy to jump on the boat when everything is going well, so you have to get right away on the same level. That's why I wanted to just focus more on that, to get on that big wave with the team and meet together with them. It was a lot to take." 

So far, so good, though, through his first three games. He's stopped 86 of 91 shots on goal while going 2-1, including wins over top-10 scoring offenses in Florida and Boston in which he ceded a combined two goals.  

Merzlikins has a 1.68 goals-against average and .945 save percentage in his three starts since the Korpisalo injury. On the year, he's now 2-5-4 with a 2.94 GAA and .904 save percentage; since his seven-goal debut vs. Pittsburgh, he's at a 2.53 GAA and a .915 save percentage. 

"Even in the games he wasn't winning (earlier this year), he was still playing well," Pierre-Luc Dubois said. "You could see he's improving as a rookie goalie. It's also his first year in North America. We knew he was going to improve as the year went on. (Against Florida) he was solid, and (vs. Boston) he was even better. He keeps working hard with (goalie coach Manny Legace) in practices, but we have all the confidence in him." 

Speaking again with the media after Saturday's setback vs. San Jose in which he had 25 saves, Merzlikins admits there's still a lot more to work on. Yet at the same time, he feels more comfortable considering he knows regular playing time is on the table over the coming weeks.  

"Before I had just that one opportunity every few games, so I had to play a good game," he said. "I was trying to play my best game when I can. It wasn't that easy. First year in the NHL still, it's a lot to take in. It's just experience. Every game after the game, I feel better and better. This time, I've just had the chance to feel (like) myself, in my skin, who I am." 

Tortorella has praised Merzlikins for how he's played in the last first three games, especially the calm nature he's shown in net and his lack of extra movement, but the head coach noted the goalie "just has to stay within himself and keep on playing." 

So far, that's exactly what he's done since his opportunity arose. 

"I am getting there," Merzlikins said. "I am starting to feel great. I just want to keep on doing what I can do." 

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