COLUMBUS — John Tortorella said he doesn’t know whether Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins will start for the Columbus Blue Jackets when they begin their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“We have no clue who’s going to be our goaltender when we start playing (Aug. 2),” the Blue Jackets coach said Monday at the start of traning camp. “I think they’ll make that decision for us. I’ll tell you right now, both of them deserve the opportunity in the way they’ve played this year.”
Korpisalo was 19-12-5 with a 2.60 goals-against average, a .911 save percentage and two shutouts in 37 games (35 starts) this season. He was named to the NHL All-Star Game for the first time but was not able to play after he sustained a knee injury Dec. 29 that caused him to miss eight weeks.
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With Korpisalo injured, Merzlikins started 21 of Columbus’ 24 games and was 12-5-4 with a 1.97 GAA and .935 save percentage. He finished the regular season second in GAA (2.35) and third in save percentage (.923) among rookies with at least five starts, and was tied for second among all NHL goaltenders in shutouts (five) with Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins.
Neither Korpisalo or Merzlikins have played in a NHL postseason game; the Blue Jackets relied in the past on Sergei Bobrovsky, who left as a free agent this offseason and signed with the Florida Panthers.
“It’s going to be a little different, but I think it’s a healthy competition between them,” Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard said. “I think we’re confident with both goalies. We’re excited about both competing for that first spot.”
Columbus will enter the Qualifiers healthy — with the exception of forward Josh Anderson, who had shoulder surgery March 2 — for the first time in a while. The Blue Jackets led the NHL with 419 man-games lost to injury and were hit hard after defenseman Seth Jones and leading goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand sustained a broken ankle on Feb. 8 and Feb. 20, respectively.
The Blue Jackets were 3-6-6 in their final 15 games before the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
“We went through a ton of injuries,” Tortorella said. “When Oliver goes out — and he was probably our best player at that point in time the way he was playing — when [Jones] goes down, we were swimming upstream big time.
“I’m not sure where we go without those two for another 12 games, I think, we had to play. I’m certainly not going to say we’re not going to get in, but it was a struggle.”
The Blue Jackets, who were 33-22-15 (.579 points percentage), enter the Qualifiers as the No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their best-of-5 series against the Maple Leafs, the No. 8 seed Toronto is the hub city for the 12 Eastern teams..
The winner of the series will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery.
“It’s just nice to see our team healthy,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “I think we all felt really strongly about our group even with all the injuries we had, but to add those players (including forward Cam Atkinson, who also missed time with an ankle injury), it’s an instant boost to your team and your morale.”