NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two weeks ago, only a small part of the hockey world knew of goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis.
By the end of the Olympics, the Lightning prospect had gained instant notoriety around the world after nearly dashing Canada's Olympic gold medal run with a 55-save performance in the quarterfinals for Latvia in a 2-1 loss.
Tampa Bay captain Marty St. Louis had an up-close look at the performance by Gudlevskis, which had tension building on the Canadian bench throughout the game. St. Louis shared a few words with the 21-year-old in the handshake line.
“I told him, 'Great job,' ” St. Louis said. “Before every game, we talked about the other team, and they knew he played (with Tampa Bay) so they asked me a little bit about him and I told him, from what I saw, he battles in that net and is a big boy. And he made it a little harder than we wanted, that's for sure.''
That performance has allowed Gudlevskis to stick with the Lightning for the time being after backup goaltender Anders Lindback, who suffered an ankle sprain Jan. 30 in Ottawa, was sent to Syracuse for a conditioning assignment. Lindback is scheduled to start Friday and Sunday for the Crunch before returning to the Lightning.
After Ben Bishop, nursing a wrist injury, presumably gets the nod tonight in Nashville to open a four-game road trip, Gudlevskis — who dressed as the backup to Bishop on Feb. 8 against Detroit — seems primed to make his NHL debut this weekend as Tampa Bay plays on consecutive days in Dallas and Denver. If he gets some playing time, Gudlevskis would become the first goaltender to appear in games in the East Coast Hockey League, American Hockey League, NHL and the Olympics in the same season.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Wednesday he has 100 percent confidence in Gudlevskis if he is called upon.
It has been quite a journey for Gudlevskis, who last year at this time was playing for Riga juniors in the Minor Hockey League, the top farm system for the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, eventually playing two games for the parent team. After a strong showing for Latvia at the World Championships, the Lightning used a fifth-round pick to select Gudlevskis, who was passed over in two previous drafts.
When he showed up for a Lightning prospect camp in July, he had with him a used goalie mask handed down from a former teammate as well as hand-me-down pads that could have been described “glorified pillows.”
“I noticed on his equipment that it wasn't his name that was stitched on it, it was another goalie,'' Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean said. “He told me it was another goalie from his team, the older goalie had passed it down to him, so he couldn't remember the last time he had new goalie equipment to play with. So he said he was excited that he was going to get new stuff, and I told him he could order what he wanted, whatever color he wanted. Then, when he came to training camp and saw his equipment, he had a big smile on his face and said 'It's like Christmas,' and it was so humbling to see.''
In 11 games with Florida in the ECHL to start the season, Gudlevskis posted a 7-4 record with a 1.83 goals-against average and a pair of shutouts before a full-time promotion to Syracuse in the AHL, where he holds an 11-8-2 record with a 2.69 goals-against average and four shutouts.
It's been like a rag-to-riches story in such a short period of time.
“I don't think about that so much,” Gudlevskis said. “I think about my goals and what I want to do in this season, and when the season started, I thought I needed to get to the American Hockey League and get some games in there and stay there, that was my goal. And I got there, and continued my season, and now I'm here.''
Though Gudlevskis garnered plenty of attention for his near-miraculous performance against Canada that had many ready to anoint him an NHL goaltender, it's merely a step in the process.
“He had a Herculean effort, and it was great to see ... but this is baby steps with him, and one game does not make a career,'' Cooper said. “(The past year) is a lot to consume in a short time. But he seems to have handled it extremely well.''