The NHL is back on August 1st, when the Stanley Cup Qualifiers action will officially be underway. As players are getting ready to report to the “bubble” in either Toronto or Edmonton, teams are getting ready for their short opening series against their first opponents.
In the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, that opponent is each other. Each team has had their own story lines this season, but the talk of the town for them both has been their goalies.
The question most pertinent in my mind is: Can Elvis Merzlikins outshine Frederik Andersen on his own turf, and lead the Jackets past the Leafs in what seems like it could be a toss-up series? Let’s explore the possibility.
First, it behooves me to mention that Jack Adams Award nominee John Tortorella, head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, has not chosen a starting goalie for the Qualifiers yet. He says he’s unsure who will start between the pipes, and the spot was up for grabs in camp before teams were to report to the bubble.
For reasons I’ll explain below, though, I think it’s a safe bet to assume Elvis is the go-to guy. Before we get to him, l’ll touch on the Leafs goaltending situation first.
The Maple Leafs have their guy: Frederik Andersen. The six-foot-four, 238 lb. Dane has been the best goalie the Leafs have iced since…well, it’s kind of hard to remember a time when someone as good as Freddie suited up in a Leafs sweater. That being said, the team still hasn’t enjoyed a playoff series victory in his time with in Toronto.
That’s not to say they haven’t enjoyed any success whatsoever, no – they certainly have.
Since being chosen in the 3rd round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Anaheim Ducks, Andersen has been a solid starting goalie. He has 6 years of playoff experience, 3 with Anaheim and 3 with Toronto.
In 52 games played in the 2019-20 campaign, he went 29-13-7, and posted a 2.85 GAA, a .909 SV%, and 3 shutouts. Those numbers are down from previous years, but he was still a single win away from another 30-win season, and had the season not been cut short would have well surpassed that mark.
Andersen’s career playoff stats are solid. And again, he has a good amount of experience. In 48 career playoff games, Andersen holds a 25-20 record, a 2.63 GAA, .914 SV%, and 2 shutouts. In line with his career regular season numbers, he’s been incredibly dependable and consistent.
And now, we come to Elvis Merzlikins. Elvis burst onto the scene this season, stepping in for an injured Joonas Korpisalo. In his rookie year, Merzlikins broke all barriers set for him and truly wowed the fans not just in Columbus, but around the entire NHL.
Merzlikins boasts some insanely good stats for a rookie thrust into the NHL with no real North American playing experience. In 2019-20, Merzlikins played 33 games, posted a 13-9-8 record, and recorded a 2.35 GAA, .923 SV%, and a whopping 5 shutouts.
This guy is good.
So what reasons are there to be apprehensive of starting him? First, he has no playoff experience, and second, Joonas Korpisalo also had a good year when he wasn’t out injured. Plus, Korpisalo has more NHL experience under his belt. I still think Elvis gets the nod.
Now for the big question: Can Elviz Merzlikins outshine Frederik Andersen in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers? The answer, I believe, is absolutely.
Andersen is a really good goaltender, but has struggled mightily for considerable stretches during this season. Additionally, he hasn’t enjoyed any real playoff success since arriving in Toronto.
Elvis, on the other hand…
Elvis Merzlikins is an electrifying rookie with an exciting playstyle and personality, and who really served as a guy to rally in front of for the rest of this Jackets team that, after losing stars Sergei Bobrovksy and Artemi Panarin last offseason, not many people thought would make the playoffs.
I think Tortorella would be smart to ride the hot hand of Elvis, and let him make his mark on his side of the ice against the veteran Frederik Andersen. Whether he can measure up and lead the Jackets to a series win remains to be seen.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets first take the ice against each other on Sunday, August 2nd, at 8pm ET.