SYRACUSE - Before the Sochi Winter Olympics, it would be safe to say that not many people around the hockey world had heard of the Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis. After a 55 save performance in a 2-1 loss to the eventual gold-medal winning Canadians, Gudlevskis undoubtedly made a name for himself. The Syracuse Crunch rookie goalie was then called up to serve as backup for the Tampa Bay Lightning in three games following his stellar performance on the world’s biggest stage.
Although he was reassigned back to Syracuse on March 3rd, Gudlevskis has made the most of his increased workload in the AHL. Going into Saturday night’s game vs. the Senators, Gudlevskis had a 5-2-1 record in net for the Crunch since returning from Sochi and Tampa Bay. Crunch fans may not have been surprised by Gudlevskis strong play in Sochi, as he is 16-10-4 with a 2.56 GAA and a .907% save percentage for a Syracuse team that is at the bottom of the East division.
Gudlevskis started off Saturday’s game at the War Memorial Arena no differently, making saves on two legitimate scoring chances early on in the game. “For us playing six games in nine nights, I felt fine,” Gudlevskis said. “Physically it may have been a little bit harder, but I was focused and fighting in the net.”
In addition to it being the tenth and final meeting on the season between divisional foes Syracuse and Binghamton, it was also “Pucks for Paws” night at the arena. On a night when dogs could be heard barking during both the national anthem and throughout the game, it was the Crunch who came out of the gates like a group of junkyard dogs. Syracuse established a strong forecheck and created good scoring chances early in the game, but Binghamton goalie Andrew Hammond stood tall and shut the door each time.
Despite the Crunch’s strong start, it was the Senators that struck first just before the halfway point of the first period. One of the hardest plays for a goalie to read is when the puck is lightly dumped in and he has to make the decision to come out and play it or stay in the net. One of the worst things a goalie can do on this play is hesitate, and Gudlevskis did exactly that. The Crunch goalie looked like he was going to try to win the race to the puck, but he instead tried to get back to his post as the Senators’ Derek Grant carried the puck below the circle. Grant quickly put the puck on net and it trickled by Gudlevskis and past the goal line to make it 1-0 Binghamton. Gudlevskis practiced his positioning on the same post the goal was scored on him in the next TV timeout.
Aside from a Binghamton power play one-timer that he had no chance in stopping, Gudlevskis was solid throughout the rest of game. Right after the Crunch took lead midway through the second period, Gudlevskis made a breakaway save and smothered the rebound to keep his team on top. The divisional and regional rivals went into their respective locker rooms tied after the second frame.
Playing the point on the power play, Syracuse RW Geoff Walker blasted home a one-timer past Hammond to put the Crunch up by one just past the halfway point in the third. With just over five minutes remaining though, Binghamton’s Alex Grant threw a shot on net from the point that somehow found its was through traffic and into the back of the net. It was clear by his reaction that Gudlevskis was screened, but he thinks he could have done something differently to see the puck better.
“I shouldn’t have been blocking the short side, but in that moment I thought that was the best option,” Gudlevskis said. “But I didn’t for sure know and I didn’t see it go in. It happens, its hockey.” Gudlevskis bounced back quickly, making a few stellar saves to keep the game tied including one from point blank range with just a few seconds to go in the third to send the game to overtime. Gudlevskis made 25 saves on 28 shots in regulation.
After a scoreless overtime period that did not produce many scoring chances, both the human and dog fans in the building barked for a shootout. Gudlevskis was strong down low all game, but Binghamton’s Cole Schneider saw some daylight upstairs in the shootout to put the Senators up 1-0. Schneider’s goal turned out to be the only goal for either side in the shootout, as Hammond stuffed all five Crunch players to secure the victory for the Senators.
The win gave the Senators an 8-2 record vs. the Crunch this season and secured their position at both the top of the East division and third in the Eastern conference. Syracuse, on the other hand, remains last in the East division and 11th in the Eastern conference, 13 points out of the final playoff spot with just nine games to play.
Although the Crunch are definitely on the outside looking in, Gudlevskis knows what the team needs to do to give themselves a shot at the postseason. “We can’t think about it, we just need to go out there every game fighting. If we can win all nine of these games, we have a chance,” Gudlevskis said.
Now 5-2-2 since returning from the Olympics, Gudlevskis has maintained the same high level of play that was almost the reason for an upset of epic proportions for his Latvian team vs. Canada in the knockout round of the Olympic hockey tournament. Only 21 years old and still a rookie, Gudlevskis is handling the entire experience like a true professional.
“[The Olympics] gave me confidence and a lot of skills,” Gudlevskis said. “But now its in the past and I don’t think about that anymore, I’m just focusing here for Syracuse.”