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Latvia goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis reaches for a shot from Canada's Chris Kunitz during first period quarter-final hockey action at the Sochi Winter Olympics Wednesday, February 19, 2014 in Sochi. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Latvia goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis reaches for a shot from Canada's Chris Kunitz during first period quarter-final hockey action at the Sochi Winter Olympics Wednesday, February 19, 2014 in Sochi. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Latvian netminder Gudlevskis’s remarkable Cinderella story Add to ...

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He had Canadian fans on the edge of their seats – or a panic attack – for most of the game, making incredible save after save as the barrage kept coming and his teammates dove to block shots in front of him.

When it was all over, the little known 21-year-old Latvian netminder from the small town of Aizkraukle was the game’s first star and exhausted from the effort.

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Kristers Gudlevskis had nearly pulled off the unthinkable, pushing Team Canada’s 25 superstars to the brink of early elimination in Wednesday’s Olympic quarter-finals. In all, he made 55 saves, keeping the game tied 1-1 right up until the final seven minutes when Shea Weber’s rocket from the point finally beat him.

It was further proof that goaltending can be a big equalizer in a tournament like this, as Gudlevskis and his $55,000 American Hockey League salary nearly shut down Canada’s $130-million of offensive firepower.

“That was one of the best goaltending performances I’ve ever seen in a long time,” Canadian netminder Carey Price told reporters in Sochi. “He played a heck of a game.”

For the majority of the hockey world, it was very much a case of an unfamiliar goaltender standing on his head and nearly ending Canada’s gold medal hopes, but Gudlevskis isn’t exactly an unknown commodity.

In fact, Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman drafted him last year in Newark, using the Tampa Bay Lightning’s fifth round pick on just the second ever Latvian netminder ever taken in the NHL draft.

Tall and lanky, Gudlevskis is part of a generation of excellent young goalies suddenly coming out of Europe, who is in his rookie season in the Lightning’s farm system with the Syracuse Crunch. His play in the minors has been all over the map as he has adjusted in his first year in North America, but mixed in have been four shutouts, including two in back-to-back nights last month.

He was also excellent for Latvia in last year’s world championships, taking the starting job from two veteran teammates and outplaying established NHLers like Devan Dubnyk, Ilya Bryzgalov, Semyon Varlamov and Ben Bishop with a .925 save percentage in four starts, including an overtime loss to Finland.

It was that tournament that finally got him noticed by the NHL, as the Lightning’s director of amateur scouting Al Murray marked him down as a possible late round pick.

On draft day, Gudlevskis got a surprise call at 5:00 a.m. to tell him that he had been drafted, only a few weeks before his 21st birthday, making him one of the oldest players taken in the last several years.

“It’s really hard to get here,” Gudlevskis told the local Syracuse paper earlier this season. “I don’t think there’s lots of scouts in Latvia.”

When he reported to the Lightning the next month for a development camp, team staffers were blown away by his “raw” talent.

“We realized he was much better than everyone thought he was,” said Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean, who spent Wednesday afternoon before Tampa’s practice watching Gudlevskis take on Canada almost singlehandedly. “What we saw today, I’m not surprised. He’s a gamer.”

Gudlevskis has a bit of a rags-to-riches story, as he comes from a modest background. When he arrived in Tampa in July, Jean took great delight in giving the young goaltender a new set of equipment, as he had been relying on hand-me-downs from other goalies back in Latvia.

Gudlevskis also hasn’t had a very high level of coaching so far in his career, making him a project for the Lightning to work with in the minors over the next two or three years.

“He’s from very humble beginnings, from what I understand,” Jean said. “I mean he came to our camp and he had the old equipment of the No. 1 goalie on the team he was playing with. There’s not a pro goalie that would have played with that equipment in North America. That’s how old it was.

“When he received his new set of gear with the Lightning colours, it was like Christmas. It was the first new gear he had in years.”

Jean added that he hopes Gudlevskis’s success against Canada is just the beginning.

“He deserves everything that’s happening,” Jean said. “He’s worked his way up to that moment [at the Olympics] and it’s great for him. It couldn’t happen to a better person.”