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Blue Jackets have pair of goalies in sync in Korpisalo, Merzlikins

Both netminders have excelled in recent starts, giving Columbus options

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

In professional sports, a week can be a lifetime when it comes to a storyline. 

For example, there's the Blue Jackets goaltending situation. 

Last Wednesday, the Blue Jackets left for a three-game road swing, and Elvis Merzlikins didn't make the trip. With the three games stretched over six days with at least one day off in between each -- and with Joonas Korpisalo entrenched as the team's No. 1 goalie -- it made sense for the young Latvian who is still adjusting to the North American game to go to AHL Cleveland to play rather than sit the bench for another week.

As Columbus fans know, it didn't quite work out that way. A couple of demonstrative reactions to goals allowed in Colorado by Korpisalo led to a one-game benching, and Merzlikins was summoned from Cleveland after just one game played in the minors to start Tuesday in Montreal. 

He then turned in another solid outing, while Korpisalo was back in net and got the win Friday night vs. St. Louis in Nationwide Arena. 

So where do things stand now? Yes, Korpisalo is still the starter, but for the first time in a while, head coach John Tortorella admitted the play of Merzlikins is forcing the new European import into the discussion of earning some more time. 

"Elvis is improving," Tortorella said. "That comes into some decision making for me as we go through here because I have to monitor everything with those two guys because of just the situation we're in. We'll see where it goes." 

The Blue Jackets don't have a back-to-back for two weeks, when the team hosts Pittsburgh on Black Friday before visiting Long Island to take on New York on Nov. 30. So far, other than the spot start in Montreal, Merzlikins' NHL starts have come only in a back-to-back situation. In other words, if he's to start again before the last week of the month, he'll have to be put into a spot that Korpisalo has handled exclusively this year.  

Tortorella has said, though, that he doesn't think too far ahead when it comes to goalies, so there's time to work things out. The good news for the head coach is that he has a pair of good options at the moment. 

In fact, in his last five starts, Korpisalo has a 2.40 GAA and a .919 save percentage. In his last four appearances, meanwhile, Merzlikins has nearly identical stats with a 2.45 GAA and .919 save percentage. 

Goaltending was a question mark for the team coming into the season after the departure of seven-year starter Sergei Bobrovsky. While there have been some bumps in the road so far -- the Blue Jackets have allowed 3.26 goals per game and have a team save percentage of .893 -- the recent play of the netminders suggests the tandem has settled in. 

"I think as a whole (team), we've been really good lately," Korpisalo said. "It's a defensive game, being smart and stuff like that. It's fun to play behind the boys." 

For Korpisalo, Friday's 25-save outing was a good response to watching from the bench Tuesday. Tortorella said he wasn't going to cast the Finnish netminder to the curb for one mistake in Colorado, and he was rewarded in his faith in Korpisalo with a fifth straight solid outing since being pulled Oct. 30 vs. Edmonton.  

"Korpi has played well," Tortorella said. "A goalie influences a team and how the team plays in many different ways. That's what is so unique and cool about that position, how many things they can change with a team. We just need to correct that one (issue) there, and hopefully we have." 

Merzlikins, meanwhile, has rebounded from the difficult-to-watch seven-goal outing at Pittsburgh in his NHL debut. While playing time has been few and far between, Merzlikins has made consistent steps in his development with goaltending coach Manny Legace after starring in Switzerland over the past few seasons but struggling initially with the pace of the North American game. 

His best start was his last one in Montreal when he made 30 saves on 32 shots before losing in a shootout.  

"I think he's gone through a great progression with Manny," Tortorella said. "I don't watch the saves he makes, I watch how he is in the net. Even I think it was two games ago (in St. Louis), he played a really good game, but he was all over the map. But he is so athletic and so competitive, he made saves. As he keeps on working day by day, he just seems to be more in control and looks more confident." 

Merzlikins has said he will not be happy until he earns his first NHL win, but it's inarguable he appears to have made big steps in his development. The 25-year-old Latvian acknowledged he feels more comfortable and less nervous as he's played more. 

It gives the Blue Jackets two options Tortorella can trust if they keep playing as well as they have in recent games.  

"I think we have two goalies, two different personalities, but they compete," Tortorella said. "I don't want them to lose that." 

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