ST. LOUIS — Kristers Gudlevskis had every reason to smile Saturday night, having shut down the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks for 60 minutes.
The Lightning didn't win, falling 1-0 in overtime on a big-time play by Chicago captain Jonathan Toews. However, Gudlevskis, 23, called up Saturday from AHL Syracuse to give Ben Bishop a much-needed rest, was the main reason Tampa Bay even picked up a point, racking up 31 saves.
But Gudlevskis, making just his second NHL start — his first was in April 2014 — was subdued postgame, trying to soak it all in. He knows how fleeting such moments can be.
"I was just enjoying the opportunity to play in the NHL," he said.
Gudlevskis didn't know if the call would come again. The Latvian Olympic hero, who nearly stunned Canada with a 55-save show in the 2014 Olympics, has struggled with consistency the past two pro seasons with AHL Syracuse. With Andrei Vasilevskiy a future No. 1, ahead of him and prospect Adam Wilcox sharing starts with the Crunch, Gudlevskis, a 2013 fifth-round draft pick, has said he wants to show the Lightning he still has a place in the organization.
That's why Gudlevskis' poised performance was a big confidence booster not only for him but also for Tampa Bay. General manager Steve Yzerman said Gudlevskis likely will remain Bishop's backup until Vasilevskiy is ready in early November. Vasilevskiy, out since September surgery to remove a blood clot, was expected to return to practice today.
Coach Jon Cooper said he could sense a difference in maturity in Gudlevskis.
"He didn't look nervous in there at all," Cooper said. "If it's 0-0 in the defending champs' building, you're doing something right. And he did something right (Saturday)."
You could see it from the start. Gudlevskis calmly squared up to shots, tracked pucks through traffic and prevented rebounds. The United Center crowd of 21,000-plus was loud and the Blackhawks were pressuring, but Gudlevskis held his ground.
His biggest improvement, Cooper said, might have been how he played the puck, looking like Bishop. "An unreal job," Cooper said. "He was dishing pucks left, right, middle. He was really confident about it. He did it all."
Gudlevskis said his first two starts in Syracuse this season — in which he stopped 53 of 55 combined shots — gave him confidence. Saturday, he tried to stay calm and not overthink, just play his game. His top save came on a late second=period breakaway by Patrick Kane, who tried to beat Gudlevskis five-hole.
"I just tried to be patient, wait for his first move," Gudlevskis said. "Make the save."
GOALIE GLUT: With goalie Kevin Poulin clearing waivers Sunday and being assigned to Syracuse, the Lightning will soon have to make some decisions with the Crunch. Wilcox and Allen York, on an ECHL recall, were the Crunch's goalies Sunday in Rochester. York can be returned to the ECHL. But when Vasilevskiy rejoins the Lightning, Gudlevskis will be sent back to Syracuse, giving it three goalies, with Poulin and Wilcox.