TORONTO — It’s starting to look like Joonas Korpisalo might be the only thing that can save us from 2020.
The stoic Finn has certainly had a significant hand in getting the Columbus Blue Jackets to where they are in these bubble-bound playoffs, tied 1-1 with the Tampa Bay Lightning and seemingly getting stronger with each test of mental fortitude.
This is the stuff that legends are made of.
Korpisalo, at age 26 and with more than 180 professional games on his resume, has timed the hottest run of his NHL career with the first six career starts he’s ever made in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s just awesome to have him in net,” teammate Oliver Bjorkstrand said after Thursday’s 3-1 victory over the Lightning.
As committed and stout as Columbus plays defensively, they’ve needed some help. Korpisalo turned aside 36 shots in Game 2 against Tampa, bringing his total to 154 in the last three outings alone.
And no, that’s not a typo.
His recent body of work includes a shutout to eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs — one of two he posted in that qualifying series — and a record-setting 85-save masterpiece during Tuesday’s quintuple overtime loss to Tampa.
“You just try to go save by save. Not thinking too much and just grinding through it,” Korpisalo said by way of explanation for how he kept his concentration into the eighth period.
Losing in that manner could easily break the spirit of some players and teams, especially when Tampa surged ahead on a Nikita Kucherov goal less than six minutes into Game 2. But Korpisalo didn’t let another puck get past him, giving teammate Pierre-Luc Dubois time to find his legs and the chance to set up Ryan Murray and Bjorkstrand for big goals, before Alexander Wennberg iced it with a glorious individual effort in the third period.
Korpisalo has a .962 save percentage to show for these playoffs so far and it would be unreasonable to expect him to continue allowing fewer than two goals per game with this much work.
But sustainability is a concern for another day.
The Blue Jackets rank 22nd of 24 teams with an expected goals percentage of 40.51 at even strength during this return-to-play and yet they’ve managed to outscore opponents 13-7 in that game state.
No wonder the Leafs have already gone through end-of-season media availabilities and the Lightning are having to answer questions about why this series won’t end up being a repeat of last year.
Korpisalo backed up Sergei Bobrovsky during the sweep of Tampa in April 2019 and got the nod from John Tortorella to start this post-season largely out of loyalty. The Blue Jackets coach wanted to reward the work he put in during four seasons as the backup and ended up going to Elvis Merzlikins for a game and a half in the Toronto series, only to see Merzlikins get injured.
Now he needs Korpisalo. The Blue Jackets have recently flown Veini Vehvilainen to Toronto in order to have him enter the NHL bubble, observe quarantine and give them a third goaltending option behind Matiss Kivlenieks
But they only have six games of NHL experience between them.
Fortunately, Korpisalo has been more than up to the task for a Jackets team that has already played 28 periods of hockey in its seven playoff games.
“We all know in the dressing room that he’s one of the best goalies in the NHL and he’s feeling really good right now,” said Dubois. “Every time we make a little mistake he’s there to stop the puck and give us confidence to try plays and that’s all you can ask from a goalie.
“He’s been, since Game 1, since he started, he’s been amazing for us.”
Do you need further proof?
With Thursday’s performance, Korpisalo became the first goalie in NHL history with 121 saves through two games of a playoff series, surpassing Curtis Joseph’s 118 for St. Louis against Toronto in 1993.