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Meriläinen flashes potential in AHL debut

April 4, 2023

Leevi Meriläinen probably thought his season was over after his Liiga club team Oulun Kärpät exited the playoffs.

Instead, the Senators’ organization was excited to take advantage of an opportunity to see their 2020 third-round selection make his American Hockey League debut. Meriläinen did not disappoint, making 41 saves in his shutout victory against the Toronto Marlies and after the win, was promptly recalled to Ottawa, where he’s expected to make his first career National Hockey League start on Tuesday night.

Even after a stellar campaign in Finland, in which he led his club with a 2.02 goals-against average and .918 save percentage while setting a league record for most shutouts (8) in a rookie season, Meriläinen is still focused on continual improvement.  He tends to credit coaches for his technique and teammates for his successes. His main focus is playing well after some time away from the rink.

“I haven’t really set any goals. I’m trying to be my best self and find my game. I was injured back home. Coming here now, I’m all good. When I get caught up to play, I’ll be ready. That’s the goal.”

Meriläinen noted that his first year of professional hockey was positive. He matured and learned independence, with his family just minutes away if he needed them. He had the perfect balance to begin his career as he got used to living on his own with his partner.

“It was exciting living basically on my own with my girlfriend. I felt like that was really good for me to learn that before coming here. All the cooking, all the dishes, all the laundry, going to the grocery store, knowing what to buy. It was good. It was fun being around my family. If I wanted to visit them, they were only 15 minutes away, not an eight-hour flight.”

Despite having just appeared in his first AHL contest, Meriläinen is well acquainted with North American hockey. Leevi excelled last season with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. The native of Oulu, Finland, had a stellar 31-16-4-1 record with a 3.29 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage. This also afforded him the chance to work with Belleville Senators’ goaltending coach Justin Peters, helping to make his transition easier.

“It’s awesome to work with him in person rather than just texting on WhatsApp. Of course, in Kingston, he came once a week to watch videos with me or help me on the ice. But it’s totally different now that we will work together on a daily basis.”

If his initial start is any indication, Meriläinen appears to be a quick study, and Peters seems to have found another protégé. The Senators also have another excellent prospect in the fold.