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Consistency eludes Lightning goalie Kristers Gudlevskis

Kristers Gudlevskis, 23, spent most of his first two pro seasons in the AHL. He has tended to play  well for a while and then struggle “for four, five, six games,” goalie coach Frantz Jean says.
Kristers Gudlevskis, 23, spent most of his first two pro seasons in the AHL. He has tended to play well for a while and then struggle “for four, five, six games,” goalie coach Frantz Jean says.
Published Sep. 25, 2015

TAMPA — Kristers Gudlevskis remembers every moment, every save, as if it were yesterday.

The Lightning goalie prospect stunned the hockey world — and made an entire country hold its breath — that magical February day in Sochi, Russia, in the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament quarterfinals. The little-known Latvian's 55-save performance nearly single-handedly upset Canada before his country fell 2-1.

Friends, family and fans in Canada still ask him about it.

"That was the past, the greatest moment in my life," Gudlev­skis said. "Nobody can take it away from me. But it's time to make a new future."

The time is now for Gudlev­skis, 23, who has a golden opportunity to start the season in the NHL and solidify his place in the organization. But he has to earn it.

Gudlevskis was thought to be the leading in-house candidate to temporarily replace backup Andrei Vaslievskiy, who is out for at least the first month of the season after vascular surgery. But he had his audition put on hold due to an upper-body injury suffered Sept. 15.

The Lightning hopes Gudlev­skis will be ready to make his exhibition debut this weekend, either today against the Panthers at Amalie Arena or Saturday in Dallas. With veteran Ray Emery, 32, on a camp tryout deal also vying for the backup role and prospect Adam Wilcox making strides, Gudlevskis has to deliver the consistency that has eluded him since that spectacular Sochi performance.

"It's important for him to show us he's moving forward in his development," Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said. "He wants to do well; he's a great athlete. He takes a lot of pride in his preparation. He wants to show us, the organization, that he has a place with us going forward."

Gudlevskis came from humble beginnings in the small town of Aizkraukle, Latvia.

He was a raw 21-year-old when he was drafted in the fifth round in 2013, showing up at development camp with very old, hand-me-down pads. Jean will never forget Gudlevskis' reaction when the Lightning gave him new gear.

"The look in his eyes, it was like Christmas," Jean said.

A few months later, Gudlevskis did the improbable in Sochi, giving what Canadiens Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Carey Price, his opponent in net that day, called then "one of the best goaltending performances I've ever seen in a long time."

"I held my breath, like every Canadian fan," said Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray. "I was cheering for Kristers but hoping at least one was going by him."

Gudlevskis became the first goalie to play in the ECHL, AHL, NHL and Olympics in the same season, including making his Stanley Cup playoffs debut against the Canadiens.

"He was the hype before 'Vasy,' " starter Ben Bishop said.

How do you top that Olympic performance?

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"Absolutely impossible," Murray said. "Nothing can be as good as that."

Gudlevskis has all the physical tools. A lanky, 6 feet 4, he has similar athleticism to Vasilev­skiy. But Gudlevskis' challenge in his first two professional seasons with AHL Syracuse admittedly was mental — how to maintain a consistent level of play.

Gudlevskis posted just a 2.81 goals-against average last season for the Crunch. He allowed four or more goals in six of his last eight starts, including a three-game playoff sweep.

If Gudlevskis wants to be trusted to be Bishop's backup, he has to show he can be "the guy that you can lean on as a staff and as a team," Syracuse coach Rob Zettler said.

Said Jean, "It's been a little bit his tendency the past two years (to get) into that situation where he plays really, really well, and then he gets into sequences where he kind of struggles for four, five, six games," Jean said. "And that's normal in young goaltenders. That's why they don't play in the NHL right away. They have to learn to be consistent and have their 'A' game even if they don't have their 'A' stuff on that particular night. And that takes time."

CUTS: The Lightning assigned defenseman prospect Dominik Masin to Peterborough of the Ontario junior league, cutting the camp roster to 52. Masin will get more minutes in juniors than he would at Syracuse.