COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)Just before he heads to the tunnel after a win, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins gets a running start and leaps into the arms of captain Nick Foligno in joyful celebration.
The ”jump hug” is a big thing in Columbus these days – just like Elvis.
The 25-year-old Latvian rookie, all tattoos and confidence, has quickly become a fan favorite at Nationwide Arena, where Elvis Presley songs are being added to the game day playlist and are blaring from the bars outside.
The feeling is mutual. Merzlikins says he is happy to be here, celebrating Columbus with images painted on his helmet and the city skyline on his pads. That’s a big deal to fans who felt snubbed when star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky couldn’t get to Florida fast enough when he became a free agent last summer.
It helps that Merzlikins (pronounced merz-LEEK-ins) has delivered, too, backstopping a streak that has the Blue Jackets in a playoff position heading into second half of the season. The turnaround happened with ever-changing lines in front of him, patched together with rookies called up to replace injured regulars.
”He’s been lights out for us,” All-Star defenseman Seth Jones said. ”We love his energy, the fans love his energy, and it’s something we need in our room.”
Since being plugged into the starting role after newly minted All-Star Joonas Korpisalo went down with a knee injury Dec. 29, Merzlikins is 9-2-0. He has won his last five starts, including three shutouts.
After playing on larger rinks in the Swiss professional league for the first years of his career, Merzlikins – his first name was bestowed by his Elvis-fan father – has proven himself in North America. And in a league where quiet reticence is the norm, Merzlikins says what he thinks, likes talking to the reporters and shows off when he feels like it.
In Las Vegas – where else? – earlier this month,Merzlikins made 27 saves to get his first NHL shutout. That moved him to strike a classic Elvis pose on the ice and turn his goal stick into an air guitar. He signed off a postgame interview recently with a nod to the King: ”Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Coach John Tortorella tends to lament how the game lacks interesting personalities these days. He has nonetheless tried to keep Elvis-mania in check. He even kept Merzlikins off-limits to the media for his first couple of starts.
”I’m not going to be yay-ing all the time, (declaring) `Elvis has arrived,”’ Tortorella said. ”There’s so much more hockey to be played. He has so much more to learn. You guys (the media) can ride with the Elvis story and all the stuff that comes with it. He just needs to go about his business one day at a time, and that’s the way we’re going to approach him.”
Merzlikins is having fun now, but it took a while. He was 0-4-3 when Korpisalo was injured trying to make a stop in a shootout against Boston. Merzlikins was still seeking his first NHL win when he became the starter by attrition Dec. 31 against Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers. Zach Werenski got his first career hat trick that night, and the Blue Jackets won 4-1.
”The first start I had (a 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh Oct. 5) was really tough,” Merlikins said. ”My mom, she always told me that in a negative you’re going to find something positive. We all saw I was playing, I was losing. In my mind, I was crazy.
”That’s why when it happened with (Korpisalo), the injury, I asked to be left alone,” he said. ”I didn’t want anybody. I didn’t even talk much with my mom and my brother. I didn’t use my phone. I really kind of refocused and left everybody out except my girlfriend. I wanted to refocus, because I understood this could be my last chance and I want to take it.”
He said the stifling pressure he felt is gone now.
”I just want to (have) fun,” he said. ”That’s what I was thinking before the game before — `I have to win, I have to win, I have to get the points.’ Now, to be honest with you, I just want to go and have fun and not be nervous.”
Foligno thus far has received the Elvis ”jump hug” without injury, even when the goalie made his highest leap yet after the Blue Jackets won their their sixth straight game just before the All-Star break.
Foligno is seeing the progression in the young goalie, and not just in the emphatic postgame celebrations. Merlikins is still emotional, Foligno said, but now is channeling it in a positive way.
And if he continues to win, his teammates will put up with Elvis being Elvis.
”His personality is fun, it’s relatable to fans, it’s exciting.” Foligno said. ”I’d never try to stunt someone’s personality. It makes you who you are – as long as you never try to become bigger than the team.”
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