Korpi or Elvis? Blue Jackets running goaltender derby again

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — When the season began, no one in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization was sure either one of the two top goaltenders could be an everyday starter in the NHL.

Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins seized on their opportunities to play, and the tandem helped lift the injury-ravaged Blue Jackets into an Eastern Conference wildcard playoff spot by the time the season was halted in March because of the coronavirus.

Now the two 26-year-olds – each with a new contract – are battling for the starting spot again during an abbreviated training camp ahead of a playoff qualifying series against Toronto beginning Aug. 2.

The Maple Leafs have no such dilemma, but are hoping Frederik Andersen is up to the task of starting quickly in the five-game play-in series after the 30-year-old veteran netminder recorded the worst save percentage of his career (.909) in starting 52 of the 70 regular season games.

The Maple Leafs brought in some help ahead of the trade deadline in February, acquiring Jack Campbell from the Los Angeles Kings. Campbell won three of his four starts with the Leafs before the break.

In Columbus, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said he’s comfortable letting the goalie derby play out through most of the camp.

”We’re going to wing it,” Tortorella said last week. ”We’re going to wait until Aug. 2, maybe a couple of days before, (to decide) who we’re going to start. I don’t know. They both deserve the opportunity, the way they played this year.”

Merzlikins has looked sharper in scrimmages and may have the edge after Korpisalo had a rough time in a simulated game Tuesday night, surrendering seven goals to his teammates.

During the season both had earned the confidence of their coach, who is notoriously difficult to please.

”We’re not one of the 12 teams in the East playing now in the summer if our goaltending doesn’t carry us,” Tortorella said. ”They were the backbone of our team. Each one of them took a part of the season and really stood in there for us.”

Korpisalo became the starter by attrition last summer when former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky departed for the Florida Panthers as a free agent. But waiting in the wings was the flamboyant Merzlikins, who came to Columbus after six seasons as a superstar and fan favorite in the Swiss professional league.

Korpisalo pulled it together in December, going 6-2-3 with a .932 save percentage and a 1.94 goals-against average. His first half was impressive enough to earn him a spot on the NHL All-Star team just before he went down with a knee injury on Dec. 29 that would require surgery and put him on the disabled list.

Then it was Elvis time.

Pressed into service after going 0-4-3 as a backup early in the season, Merzlikins was in the net on New Year’s Eve as the Blue Jackets routed Bobrovsky’s Panthers 4-1. He backstopped to the team to an 8-2 record in January.

By the time Merzlikins was sidelined for five games with a concussion on Feb. 24, Korpisalo was healthy again and went back to the net, stirring up a goalie controversy just before the season was abruptly halted.

Merzlikins, who is from Latvia, said he feels like a different goalie than last summer in his first training camp when he was still trying to adjust to the smaller rink in the NHL after spending the first part of his career playing in Switzerland.

Korpisalo, who is from Finland, and Merzlikins have been friends since being thrown together in close quarters at Blue Jackets development camp in 2014.

”Back then we were 18 or something, still dreaming about someday playing in the NHL,” Korpisalo said. ”Today we’re both here, playing in the NHL. It’s pretty cool.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

caufield surgery
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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.