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Latvia’s Gudlevskis nearly breaks Canada’s heart

February 19, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis got hit with so many shots, you began wondering whether he’d need a cut man by the end.

Gudlevskis wasn’t boxing — but he looked like someone who had just been a fight after facing 57 shots and giving up just two goals in Latvia’s surprising 2-1 quarterfinal loss Wednesday night to mighty Canada.

The 21-year-old National Hockey League prospect couldn’t remember a busier night, nor a more nerve-wracking one. He was still catching his breath 10 minutes after the game, his long hair and jersey soaked through with sweat. His helmet was tucked under one arm, a picture of the Freedom Monument from back home in Riga — commemorating Latvia’s long struggle for independence — depicted just above the facemask.

Even in defeat, Gudlevskis imagined his countrymen would find something worth celebrating.

“We were disappointed,” he said afterward, “because we tried to make a miracle today and we just couldn’t do it.”

“For the program, I’m not sure how much we did,” said his teammate Zemgus Girgensons. “But for the country, I’m sure people back home are going to be very happy with what we accomplished.

Latvia offset an early goal from Canada’s Patrick Sharp with a tally from Lauris Darzins, but the rest of the game was played predominantly in the Latvian end. Shea Weber finally broke the 1-1 tie for the defending Olympic champions with a slap shot from the point that beat Gudlevskis low on the stick side. It was Canada’s 54th shot of the game; at that point, Latvia had put 13 on net.

After starting against Sweden earlier in the week, Gudlevskis was playing in only his second Olympic contest.

Latvian coach Ted Nolan, who also coaches the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, explained his decision to start Gudlevskis ahead of Edgar Masalskis this way: “It’s tough to play back-to-back, especially for your goaltenders. And our goaltenders,” Nolan added, “get a lot of work.”

Gudlevskis was the fifth-round pick in last year’s entry draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He gets most of his playing time currently with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, but the reflexes and poise he showed turning back Canada’s potent attack time and again could turn some heads in the big-time.

“It’s awesome he could step up in a game like this,” said Girgensons. “Both goalies the whole time were just outstanding, they kept us in the tournament.

“It’s something you try to rely on,” he added, “but it doesn’t always work. The way ours played is a big reason we advanced so far.”

The respect Gudlevskis garnered was apparent at the end, when his teammates came over the bench and one by one, lined up to give him a hug or say a few quiet words.

“There was no pressure on us,” said Arturs Kulda, “but I can only imagine the pressure on Canada as the game got longer because of Kristers. Because of him, we really had a chance.”

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