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.”