Elvis Merzlikins stepped onto the ice to start a game for the first time in Nationwide Arena as a question mark. He had appeared in 10 NHL games to that point and won zero of them, but this was now his time. With Joonas Korpisalo injured two nights prior, there would be no hiding.
For better or worse, the team belonged to Merzlikins for the foreseeable future.
His answer to those questions was immediate. He allowed just one goal against one of the NHL's best offenses, earning his first career win as cheers rained down from the stands. To cap it off, as an Elvis Presley classic played, Merzlikins charged from his crease and into the arms of Nick Foligno, fist-bumped the captain, hugged him one more time and then spun back toward the ice, clapped twice, elevated on one leg and raised his stick to the sky.
In one night, Blue Jackets fans had seen the full Elvis experience -- the obvious talent oozing from the goalie, the enthusiasm and passion for winning, and the fun-loving personality that someone named Elvis seemingly has to have.
Since then, he's turned the National Hockey League on its head with a series of performances that include nine wins in 11 starts -- each punctuated by a leap into Foligno's arms -- with just 18 goals allowed in that span and a .951 save percentage. Merzlikins is being mentioned as a darkhorse rookie of the year candidate, is being tabbed as one of the most important players to watch in the NHL's second half and has inspired fans to show up to Nationwide Arena in Elvis wigs and sequined jackets.
And the most exciting part is there might be a lot more where this came from.
"He's still learning," CBJ goaltending coach Manny Legace recently said on the #CBJin30 podcast. "He still has a long way to go. Wait until you see what this guy is going to do in five years. It's still his rookie year and it's his first time over here on North American ice.
"He's blown me out of the water with what I thought he was going to be able to do this year. I didn't think he'd be able to play as well as he has over these last 10, 11 games he's started because I just knew it's such a big learning curve and it's learning on the highest stage."
Slow but steady rise
As reporters crowded around Merzlikins after his first career game, the awkwardness was palpable.
In his first start Oct. 5 at Pittsburgh, Merzlikins gave up seven goals, including five in a second period flurry that the goaltender later compared to being in the midst of a "blackout."
The questions of what would come next were blaring like sirens. After spending the first six years of his pro career overseas, was Merzlikins ready to be an NHL goaltender? Would he ever be? When could the Blue Jackets feel comfortable putting back him on the ice?
The goalie stood in front of the media and answered every question.
"I mess up. I'm going to learn. I'm going to work, and I'm going to get better," he said. "Maybe on this negative side, there is a positive side that I am going to look at. Tomorrow is a new day. I have to relax and then start working hard again."
That's exactly what he did, Legace said. The next time Merzlikins stepped onto the ice 13 days later in Chicago, he came close to earning his first career win but instead gave up a third-period goal and an overtime tally in a 3-2 setback against the Blackhawks.
There would be more solid performances -- he got within a minute of his first win Nov. 12 at Montreal before falling in a shootout -- but also some uneven ones, including a crucial giveaway in a Nov. 23 loss at Winnipeg and being pulled in the first period Dec. 14 against Ottawa.
Through it all, though, he reported to the rink each day with a lunch pail work ethic.
"He never got down on himself where he shut himself down to working," Legace said. "He didn't quit on himself. It would have been very easy for him to just shut it down and say, 'I'm going to go back home and be the superstar,' but he kept working at it."
That's one reason why when Korpisalo went down, Merzlikins was ready. The first adjustment he made, though, was meeting with the media and requesting some time away from the recorders and notebooks. Normally loquacious, Merzlikins knew how important it would be to focus his energies fully into the opportunity in front of him.
When he arrived at Nationwide Arena the day after Korpisalo's injury, his mannerisms on the ice were noticeably more business-like. By the time the game against the Panthers arrived, he was locked in.
Looking back, the Latvian sees a straight line from his initial struggles to his ability to handle the load when it was placed on him.
"I mean, the first start that I had, it was really tough," Merzlikins said recently. "My mom, she always told me that in a negative you can find something positive. We all saw, I was playing, I was losing. In my mind, I was crazy. I had a really good talk with my mental coach back home. That's why when it happened with Korpi, the injury, I asked you guys to leave me alone because I didn't want anybody -- I even didn't talk much with my mom and with my brother. I didn't use my phone. I was really selfish. I really deleted everybody out of my life except my girlfriend. I wanted to focus because I understood this could be my last chance and I had to take it."
It was obvious that in his early starts in the season, Merzlikins was trying to do too much. After spending six seasons as the unquestioned star on HC Lugano in Switzerland and coming to America with an eye on proving himself on the biggest stage, the goalie pushed to make an impact rather than let the game come to him.
Add in the higher skill level of shooters in the NHL, the more frenetic pace, and the different angles and strategies of the North American game, and it was a lot to adjust to. Head coach John Tortorella said, especially after the loss at Winnipeg when Merzlikins threw a puck up the middle of the ice and it ended up in his own net in the final two minutes of a 4-3 loss, that it was up to the goalie to relax, respect the league and let the game come to him.
And then, as soon as Korpisalo went down, it was like a weight had been lifted from Merzlikins and he could just settle in and play hockey.
"It's changed everything," Legace said. "He was trying too hard at the beginning of the year. He was trying to make an impression on everybody and showing that he's the man and showing that he can handle this. … Now, he doesn't have to prove it."
Since then, the stats speak for themselves, from his nine victories to his three shutouts. He's been noticeably calmer in his crease, using his athleticism to get square to pucks and also battle for rebounds. His game has drawn comparisons to Patrick Roy for his competitiveness and Dominik Hasek when it comes to never being out of a play, but the reality is he's in many ways his own man. There's a panache and a style to his game, and the best qualities are shining through.
Video: NJD@CBJ: Merzlikins fuels Blue Jackets' shutout win
For teammates, the way he's persevered and grown into the job is what is most impressive.
"If you meet him as a person, he is that guy," Foligno said when asked about Merzlikins' mental toughness. "I think he's been through more adversity than anyone I probably know in his life, so I don't think that really fazes him. I think that's the reason why he's able to bounce back (from the rough start), and I think he's learned you have to let it come to you. You can't chase it in this league. Once he's done that, he's been able to be really solid and be the goalie that he wants to be.
"We're really proud that we're helping him and he's helping us."
Michael Lawrence's first introduction to Merzlikins came from the opposite side of the ice.
The Canadian-born goaltending coach was working with HC Ambrì-Piotta in Switzerland's NLA, and the team's chief rival was HC Lugano.
Merzlikins first suited up for Lugano in 2013-14 and played often against Lawrence's Ambrì-Piotta team. When Lugano was looking for a goaltending coach three seasons ago, it called Lawrence, but the rival coach wanted to make sure it would be a fit.
And if it would be a fit meant whether he could work with Merzlikins, so the coach and goaltender shared a series of meetings for coffee.
"It was just to see if this would work, to be honest with you," Lawrence said. "And the more time I spent with him, the more I realized he kind of had very much a star quality. I just felt like it needed to be, not controlled, but given the best opportunity to take flight, ultimately."
Merzlikins' physical gifts were obvious -- so much so that he was a third-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2014 -- and he had already been posting eye-catching numbers in the NLA. But Lawrence recognized that for the goalie to make the leap, his game needed to improve.
It wasn't as much constraining Merzlikins' athleticism but making sure he didn't need to rely on it to make spectacular saves where routine ones would suffice. The biggest change came to the goaltender's stance, as Lawrence worked to take what had been a tall goalie with a wide stance and adding more lean to his upper body while bringing his feet closer together.
Now, there's a straight line from his hands to his knees to his feet, allowing him to be more under control in the net and not have to scramble as much.
"A lot of it was just understanding his body and understanding how to make himself look bigger because the way he used to stand, he would create lanes through his body," Lawrence said. "When you're wide like that and your hands are overly aggressive, you create these lanes through your body. You have to be reactive on almost everything. You'll notice he makes a lot of saves with his body and his frame, and that was a big focus of creating that to make him more efficient."
It wasn't always easy, as Lawrence first had to earn the trust of Merzlikins for the changes to take effect. But eventually they did, and the results were impressive.
Merzlikins was described by some including Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen as the best goalie in the world not in the NHL while he was in Switzerland, where he led HC Lugano to Game 7 of the championship series in the spring of 2018. Twice, he was named the goalie of the year in Switzerland, and over six seasons, he posted a save percentage of .920.
His own man
Lawrence cautions that if there's one thing about Merzlikins that is underrated, it's his intelligence.
His personality, competitiveness, work ethic, talent and love of the spotlight are all obvious, but don't underestimate the smarts of someone who fluently speaks four languages.
"A big reason why I took that job was because I saw how intelligent he was," Lawrence said. "I could see it in our conversations. I won't go into detail, but there were certain things that were said in our discussions where I realized very quick this was a kid with a lot of street smarts, this was a kid that has seen different things and was subject to attaining things through knowledge and applying it extremely quickly.
"This is a highly intelligent guy."
Merzlikins also has a tremendous attention to detail. His main goalie mask is full of small but important nods to his team and his life, from the lead solider marching bearing the initials of CBJ head coach John Tortorella to the Powerpuff girl on the back plate that represents his girlfriend.
His interest in fashion ranges from goalie gear to high-end clothing, and he leaves nothing to chance with his appearance. Symbols are a tremendously important part of his life, from the tattoos he's painstakingly crafted to the skyline that adorns his Columbus pads.
It's certainly different from the usual NHL player, but it's also authentic.
"It's not an act," Lawrence said. "It's just who he is. He also has a very serious side that a lot of people don't see. He's all those things that people have said -- he's highly competitive, he has a tremendous work ethic. He's got all of those things, but at the same time there's a lot of thought that goes through Elvis and there is way more to it than what the average eye can see."
It's also a breath of fresh air. Merzlikins has ignited the Blue Jackets fan base in a way not often seen at the professional level. His leaping hug with Foligno at the end of games is a new spin on what had become a CBJ tradition, and he's added some variation to his postgame celebration after each of his first three shutouts over the past month, including a guitar strumming motion after his first blanking in Las Vegas.
Video: CBJ@VGK: Merzlikins records first NHL shutout
As his enthusiasm for the sport comes out, Blue Jackets fans haven't helped but embrace it. Fans in Elvis Presley wigs have become commonplace, as have jerseys and other forms of flattery related to his rather unique name. As Merzlikins has been honored as one of the stars of the game in recent games, chants of his name have rung out as though fans are at a rock concert.
"It feels good, but at the same time it's really all our 5th Line," he said after a recent game. "They are loud here every game in this building. I really appreciate it and I think guys do too. They are doing a great job on that and they are helping us, giving the energy when maybe we have a long shift or we are killing in the box. They are helping us."
He also can't help but let the personality shine through when talking with the media. It started from his first teleconference with Blue Jackets reporters last March after he signed, with Merzlikins memorably telling reporters, "I am not like a normal goalie. I think I am crazy and a little bit different than other goalies, right?"
When asked recently about having to take care of his body to make as many starts as he has been, part of his answer was, "It's professional hockey. There is no more kid stuff, like candy and cheeseburgers."
He's a fascinating character, authentic and unvarnished, enthusiastic yet living in the moment, a man of flash yet undeniable substance. His continued development will be one of the biggest subplots to not just this Blue Jackets season but beyond.
And while Tortorella has cautioned 11 games does not make a career, Merzlikins seems to understand he can't get too far ahead of himself. There will be ups and downs to come, plus Korpisalo's return and whatever that might bring.
But for now, the goalie is just riding the wave, thinking not about the big picture but enjoying what he has.
"I am not happy and I don't want to be happy about right now what I am doing (statistically)," he said. "I just want to play hockey. I just want to have fun. Mentally before the games (earlier this year) I was thinking, 'I have to win and get the points.' Now, to be honest with you, I don't really care. I just want to go and have fun and not feel nervous, just follow the puck and get in the game."