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Korpisalo shines in his big chance in the spotlight

Popular Blue Jackets goaltender turned heads for his standout performance vs. Toronto

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

One summer ago, as NHL free agency loomed, Joonas Korpisalo was just as interested as the average Blue Jackets fan in what would happen. 

For four seasons, he had been an understudy to Sergei Bobrovsky, so he watched with interest to see what would happen with his goaltending partner when July beckoned. 

Along with the rest of the hockey world, Korpisalo got his answer when Bobrovsky opted to sign a long-term deal with Florida. Suddenly, the Finnish goaltender would be getting something there had been precious little of over his NHL career to that point. 

That, of course, was an opportunity. 

"Obviously when you're backing up, you're always like, I wish I would be the guy, you know?" he said before this season began as he was battling for a starting role. "It doesn't happen sometimes, so just hearing the news during the summer, I was like, wow, it's going to be a blast. I'm really excited to be here with this opportunity." 

But just as he was getting excited, he also was hit with a dose of reality. As he watched hockey pundits discuss the news of Bobrovsky leaving the Blue Jackets, there was also a healthy dose of skepticism that Korpisalo would be able to fill what were admittedly big shoes left by the two-time Vezina Trophy winner. 

This, of course, was a challenge. 

"I don't want to curse, but I don't give a (hoot) about what everyone else thinks," Korpisalo said at the same time. "I'm just happy for the opportunity. … My game, if I play at my level, it's going to be more than enough to win games. That's about it." 

A year later, in a bubble no one could have imagined back when Korpisalo uttered those words this September, the 26-year-old goaltender has backed them up. 

After a season in which he earned an All-Star bid, Korpisalo turned in one of the more memorable playoff performances in Columbus franchise history in the team's Stanley Cup qualifier against Toronto that ended Sunday. He started and ended the series with shutouts, posting a .956 save percentage while consistently frustrating a Maple Leafs team that is built around offense, all part of a performance that turned heads across the league. 

Video: Joonas Korpisalo highlights vs. Toronto

"I couldn't be more happy and excited for Korpi," winger and alternate captain Cam Atkinson said. "It's all about opportunity, and having Bob the last X amount of years, it's been hard for Korpi to really get a shot and to get his feet wet and just play on a regular basis.  

"I've known all along how good Korpi is, just how he worked and how he battles and competes in practice and takes care of himself on the ice. I'm just happy that it's all working out for him. He was an All-Star this season for a reason." 

Now, with the Blue Jackets getting ready for the next mountain to climb against a Tampa Bay team that will be itching for revenge, and with Merzlikins injured, the pressure gets even more ramped up for Korpisalo.  

It's a situation he's been preparing for, though, for most of his life. 

His journey 

Korpisalo is the son of Jari Korpisalo, a notable name in Finnish hockey and in particularly in Pori, a seaside community on the Western edge of the country on the Gulf of Bothnia. 

The Porin Ässät hockey team is located there, and Jari Korpisalo played 12 seasons in the Finnish Liiga with the Aces, including seven seasons as captain. He then went on to a management career with the franchise for four more seasons. 

While Joonas gives off a calm, reserved demeanor, Jari radiates intensity, with 891 penalty minutes in 575 Liiga games to prove it. Yet when he was a kid, Joonas drew a line in the sand shortly after he started playing his father's sport.  

He would be a goalie. 

"I remember I was rather young, I was like 8 or 9 the first time I tried being a goalie," Joonas said. "I remember trying it for the first time, I was like, 'Wow, this is actually pretty cool.' I tried it more and more. I think I was like 10 years old or something, I was like, 'OK, I'm going to play hockey and I'm a goalie.' I remember my dad was like, 'You can still try out to be a forward or something.'"  

"In the beginning, I was hoping he was going to be as a skater and not as a goalie," Jari admitted. "Once he came after practice and Joonas told me that, 'If I cannot be as a goalie full-time, I won't go to the next practices anymore.' I told my wife that, and OK, he is a goalie." 

It proved to be a wise investment, as Korpisalo began playing for Finland's national youth teams when he joined the Under-16 squad in 2009-10. He was drafted in the third round by the Blue Jackets in 2012, then appeared in the World Junior Championships in 2012-13 at age 18, the same year he made his Liiga debut with Jokerit.  

After just one full season in the Liiga, he made the full-time move to North America in 2015-16 at 21 years old, and he was expected to spend most of the season with the Jackets' AHL club in Finland. But injuries to Bobrovsky and Curtis McElhinney pushed him into an unlikely starting role in Columbus, and Korpisalo played in 31 games with .920 save percentage. He then returned to Cleveland and shared the net with Anton Forsberg as the Monsters won the Calder Cup championship. 

With Bobrovsky and McElhinney healthy, Korpisalo started the next year in Cleveland, then got the call up to Columbus when McElhinney was claimed on waivers by Toronto in January 2017. From that point on, he was basically the backup to Bobrovsky, a role he worked at but one that was difficult. 

With Bobrovksy penciled in to play his usual 60 games per season, Korpisalo started just 51 games the past three seasons and played in 59, posting a .899 save percentage and 3.06 GAA. Those were the numbers the pundits saw when they questioned whether he was ready to be a full-time starter, but Korpisalo just went about proving them wrong. 

By mid-December, he had done just that. He had an .886 save percentage when he was pulled from his 10th appearance of the year against Edmonton, but from that point on, he played at an All-Star level. Over his next 22 appearances, Korpisalo went 12-6-3 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.  

Video: The best of Joonas Korpisalo so far

As Blue Jackets fans know, everything changed on a dime, though, when he suffered a knee injury in a Dec. 29 shootout vs. Chicago that would cost him the next six weeks of play. With some time off to consider things, Korpisalo was asked in January if he felt he had proved anything to those who questioned his abilities coming into the season. 

"There are some speculations; there always is," he said. "I just tried to get strength from that, but at the same time ignore that, all that stuff outside what happens right here, right now, and keep doing my stuff. I knew I've always been capable of carrying a team and playing my best and making those big saves to get points.  

"I didn't have a need to prove anything to anyone. It was just for myself more, like, 'Let's take this opportunity and make the best out of it.' Obviously, if I don't believe in myself, who will?" 

A popular teammate 

No one could know for sure how the season would unfold for Korpisalo because he'd never been tasked with carrying as much of the load as he would be during the season.  

But he had built up quite a bit of equity in the Columbus locker room over the past four seasons, and before the campaign, players talked about how happy they were that he'd finally be getting his opportunity. 

And when Nick Foligno was told about how Korpisalo had a chip on his shoulder coming into the season to prove that he could carry the mail, the captain couldn't help but smile. 

"Awesome," Foligno said. "That's what I knew he would do. I think we all felt comfortable with him. We know what type of goalie he is. I think that's what's cool about him is that he has that swagger and confidence in himself, and I think that makes everyone confident in him, which is such a cool thing." 

What makes teammates enjoy him so much, though, is his blend of intensity and a nearly surfer-like cool. Sometimes that passion -- it's not hard to see a bit of Jari Korpisalo in him, perhaps -- can come out in the wrong way, such as in November when he was benched for a game for his stick-slamming reaction to a goal given up in a loss at Colorado. 

But while Tortorella wanted to see Korpisalo tone down the visible parts of his frustration, teammates said they understood where it was coming from. 

"It shows his competitiveness," Pierre-Luc Dubois said. "In any teammate, you want to see them have that. You don't want to see someone going through the emotions. I think it just shows that he cares and he's competitive. We all know that he wants to win."  

There's also the reality that Korpisalo is one of the most popular players on the team, in large part to a dry sense of humor that delivers locker room barbs with surgical precision. 

"A really, really funny guy," Foligno said. "He gives you little shots, and he's really good at little barbs and stuff. He has a really good sense of humor. It's a lot of fun." 

"He's so calm and collected that you don't expect it, and it's just like a jab at someone," Dubois said. "He's the funniest guy on the team." 

Perhaps Korpisalo's duality, at least to Dubois, can be summed up in his enjoyment of heavy metal music, which is tremendously popular among Finns.  

"It's funny because it's the opposite of his personality," Dubois said. "He'll listen to Rammstein, and it's the opposite (of him). You look at him and he has that relaxed, on a beach-type vibe to him." 

But that's also what makes Korpisalo such a fun player to root for. His mix of competitive fire, laid-back personality and leadership skills have made him a key piece of the Blue Jackets' core, one he'll likely be a part of for the next two seasons after signing a contract extension this spring. 

And for one week against Toronto, he proved just how much he can bring when the spotlight is the brightest, helping the franchise to the second series win in its history. 

"I don't know anything about goaltending, but I do understand body language and all that," Tortorella said. "I think the past couple of years, he has just really settled himself down. How calm he is in net, I think that's important for a club. I think the team plays off that.  

"Technical stuff and all that, I just want him to stop the puck, but as far as how he looks and appears, I think it's important for his teammates to sense that. I think he's really grown in that area." 

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