For as much as we hear about how teams need to Grind It Out™ and Dig Deep © in order to win in the playoffs, more often than not, series are won and lost on the backs of goaltending. Run into a hot goaltender (Jaroslav Halak with the Habs in 2010 against the Capitals being the most famous example) and your time in the playoffs may come to a frustratingly quick end, regardless of how well you may have played. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the question of who to start for the postseason is a no brainer. Despite his struggles this season, Toronto’s net belongs to Frederik Andersen, just as it has for the previous three postseasons. Unlike those postseasons however, there is no clear indicator who will oppose him.
After four seasons of minimal playing time, the Columbus Blue Jackets started the year with Joonas Korpisalo as the heir apparent to Sergei Bobrovsky, after the two-time Vezina Trophy winner opted to leave for Florida in free agency. Korpisalo performed admirably in his first season as a starter, posting a .913 save percentage in his first 32 games (31 of them starts) before he was forced to undergo knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus on December 30th. This caused Korpisalo to miss 22 games before his return in a relief appearance on February 24th. In his absence, Columbus was forced to turn to first-year netminder Elvis Merzlikins, who at the time was sporting a 0-4-4 record with a paltry .889 save percentage in his first ten NHL games. Merzlikins would proceed with a 13-5-4 record, along with a .935 save percentage, and five shutouts in Korpisalo’s absence.
This unsurprisingly has created something of a goaltending controversy leading into the play-in round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs for Columbus; as head coach John Tortorella has not announced his starting goaltender for Sunday night’s Game One matchup against the Leafs. At the stoppage of play in March, Korpisalo had seemed to have reclaimed the net from Merzlikins, starting four of the Blue Jackets final five games before the pause. However, Korpisalo posted middling results with an .885 save percentage in those games. On the other hand, you have Merzlikins, who is arguably the Blue Jackets’ saving grace this season. It would not have been all that surprising to see the Blue Jackets taper off this season, given the sheer amount of star power lost in the summer. This on top of losing their expected starting goaltender, all while playing in the powerhouse Metropolitan Division. But the Jackets hung around until the end. This is mostly due to their strong defensive play, of course, but this does not take away from what Elvis Merzlikins accomplished when thrown to the fire as an NHL rookie.
With John Tortorella expected to make his decision at some point today, let’s take a quick look at what each goalie brings to the table.
By The Numbers
Among the 33 goalies who played at least identical minutes at 5v5 as Elvis Merzlikins (the lesser ice time of the two Columbus goalies), we are shown just how effective Columbus’ defense was. Merzlikins at 53.8 and Korpisalo at 55.3 finished first and second respectively in Expected Goals Against (xGA,) as both featured in the top ten in raw 5v5 save percentage. Merzlikins finished third with a .931 raw 5v5 save percentage and Korpisalo eighth at .926. Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), a stat which tries to determine the difference between an individual goalies goals against compared the average goals against for similar shots, also has the tandem as above average goaltenders. Merzlikins finished fifth with 9.63 GSAA and Korpisalo 12th with 5.28. If there is an area where both seem to drop a bit at 5v5, it’s in High Danger opportunities, even though are in the upper half of the league, with Merzlikins posting a .845 HDSV percentage (ninth) and Korpisalo an .835 HDSV percentage (16th). At 5v5, the slight edge would go to Merzlikins, but the margins are fairly close. However, Merzlikins also played roughly 180 less minutes, which may play a factor in tipping the scales a bit in his favor.
The area of concern for the Blue Jackets would seem to be the penalty kill. Using the same parameters as above, where we limit the field to goalies who have played the same amount as Merzlikins (which moves the total from 33 goalies above to 51 here) we find the Blue Jackets tandem falling towards the middle of the back. While we can expect penalty kill goaltending numbers to typically look worse than their 5v5 equivalents, the drop off here is staggering, with Merzlikins landing at 17th in raw save percentage at .882, and 21st in GSAA at 1.39. He actually does end up first in HDSV percentage with a .938, but he also faced the fewest amount of high danger shots of all the goaltenders on this list with a mere 16 against. (Conversely, the second fewest shots faced on this list is Jack Campbell, who faced 25 with a .640 HDSV percentage.) Korpisalo doesn’t fare much better, finding himself 25th in raw save percentage at .871, 24th in GSAA at 0.76, and 18th in HDSV percentage at .818. While these numbers are still in the upper half of goalies in the league, it’s a fairly steep decline from what the pair accomplished at 5v5. This especially when you factor in that in terms of xGA, both goalies are in the top 15, with Merzlikins once again finding himself in first at 9.56 and Korpisalo 12th at 15.8.
Elvis Merzlikins was thrust into the starters job following Columbus’ two meetings with Toronto in October, and has yet to play against the Leafs in his short NHL career. Despite becoming Columbus’ number one goaltender just this season, Joonas Korpisalo has already faced the Leafs eight times, sporting a 5-3-0 record with a .914 save percentage. This season has not been kind to him where the Leafs are concerned however, as he split the series while sporting an .883 save percentage AND allowing Cody Ceci to score his only goal as a Leaf on him.
Who Do I Think They Go With?
While Elvis Merzlikins has the more eye-popping stats, all signs are pointing towards Joonas Korpisalo being named the starter for Game One Sunday night. He just seems to be ‘The Guy’ for Tortorella given how he was used towards the end of the season, in addition to getting the starting nod in their exhibition game against Boston, Thursday night. Given the recent success against him, and his general worse numbers, this may bode well for the Leafs. But I wouldn’t be shocked to see an early switch if whoever Torts chooses falters.
What Do The Leafs Need To Do?
Get the power play clicking. Both goalies have shown to struggle a bit more with their team short-handed compared to how the team handles even strength. With Columbus’ stingy defensive structure, the Leafs need to make the most of their opportunities with the man-advantage.
All of this, of course, could be moot by this time next week. I wouldn’t be shocked to find myself sitting here next week laughing at the idea that either of these goalies could stop the Toronto Maple Leafs star-studded offense. I also wouldn’t be shocked to find myself angry and bitter, sitting in the same spot, wondering who this Elvis Merzlikins guy is, where he came from, or why does this always happen to me?
Because the Leafs.
And because goaltending.