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Kivlenieks' winding road to NHL pays off with first career win

Blue Jackets rookie helps push team to victory in debut

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Postgame: Kivlenieks 1/19/20

Matiss Kivlenieks on first NHL win

Matiss Kivlenieks talks with media on his first NHL start and win

  • 02:36 •

As far as entries to the NHL go, they don't come much more daunting than skating onto the ice at Madison Square Garden. 

It's the World's Most Famous Arena -- just ask them -- and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So as Matiss Kivlenieks skated out of the tunnel and onto the ice for warmups ahead of his first NHL start Sunday night, there were certainly nerves bouncing through the goaltender's body. 

Then, after skating out toward center ice, Kivlenieks turned around and was surprised by what he saw. 

Absolutely no one. 

Led by Cam Atkinson, the Blue Jackets stayed in the tunnel, giving the rookie netminder a traditional solo lap ahead of his debut. Kivlenieks burst into laughter and had a broad smile on his face as he skated back toward the net, then he was joined on the ice by his Blue Jackets teammates. 

"It was pretty interesting," he said of his rookie lap. "I've seen it before, but I kind of forgot about it. I didn't expect it, honestly. Once I turned around, I saw everybody was still in the tunnel and I just started laughing." 

Whether that was the moment broke the nerves for the 23-year-old Latvian goaltender is up for debate, but there's no question once he took the ice for the game, Kivlenieks was fantastic. He stopped 31 of 32 Rangers shots and got the win in the Blue Jackets' come-from-behind 2-1 victory. 

Afterward, he could hardly process the moment.  

"Honestly, I still can't believe it happened," he said. "I'll probably realize it tomorrow or something. It's always been a dream. It's obviously hard to even get a game, plus to win the first game you've ever played … but I think the guys played really good in front of me tonight, and at the end there were some really good blocks and (Oliver Bjorkstrand) scored a couple of huge goals. I'm just really happy I won the game." 

Along with the win came the spoils that are reserved for first-time winners. Kivlenieks was awarded the Kepi, the hat given to the game MVP by team members after each win, and was given the game puck as well after the victory. Perhaps most importantly, he got a fist bump from head coach John Tortorella in the locker room, a tangible sign of a job well done.  

Tweet from @BlueJacketsNHL: ��� 1st @NHL game ��� 1st win��� 1ST KEPI!

"I thought he was as calm as could be for his first game," Tortorella said. "Madison Square Garden, everything that comes with it … I was impressed with him. He made some key saves at key times." 

For a spell of the game, Kivlenieks was probably the team's best player. The Blue Jackets struggled to generate much offensively throughout the first two periods and faced a 1-0 hole after Brady Skjei's first-period goal, and there was a stretch of the second where the team lost its game a bit and gave up a number of chances. 

But Kivlenieks was equal to the task, with close-in stops on Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith after each got loose near the net. His biggest stop, though, came early in the second on an odd-man rush, as the Rangers came in on a 3-on-2 and Artemi Panarin was wide open in the low slot as the trailing player. Panarin was teed up with a perfect pass, but Kivlenieks flashed his right pad to turn aside the shot of the former Blue Jacket who had 13 points in his previous five games coming in.  

Video: CBJ@NYR: Kivlenieks shuts the door on Panarin

"I think it gave me a little confidence," Kivlenieks said of the save. "I think for every goalie, huge saves give you a little bit of confidence, and I just felt more comfortable playing and went from there." 

Kivlenieks was recalled from AHL Cleveland in late December when Joonas Korpisalo went on the shelf with a knee injury, but fellow Latvian Elvis Merzlikins was in the net for the previous 10 games while turning in his own impressive run. But with the Blue Jackets at the end of a stretch of eight games in 14 days, as well as facing a back-to-back Sunday night, the coaching staff chose to go with Kivlenieks against the Rangers. 

He said he's gotten used to the speed of the game through practices over the past three weeks, and he got some words of wisdom from Merzlikins and goaltending coach Manny Legace ahead of his start. 

"We talked a little bit about it," Kivlenieks said of NHL debuts. "I asked (Merzlikins) about how his first game was, what are the feelings and stuff like that. I asked the same to Manny. Just hearing what they went through and how to treat it and stuff like that, it helped me tonight." 

The game capped what has been a long and winding road for Kivlenieks since he moved from Latvia to Minnesota at the age of 17 to chase his dream. He landed in Edina, Minn., and spent two seasons in the Tier III Minnesota Junior Hockey League, and there simply aren't many players who advance from that spot to the NHL. 

But after two years in the MNJHL and continued work with Latvia's youth national teams, Kivlenieks turned some heads and earned a chance to jump up to Tier II junior hockey in 2015-16 with the Coulee Region Chill of the NAHL. He split time there but was impressive enough to get a spot a year later with Sioux City of the USHL, the nation's top junior league.  

There, he really burst onto the scene in 2016-17, playing in 49 games with a 1.85 goals-against average and .932 save percentage to earn league MVP honors. He was planning to go to college at Minnesota State, but his season was so good that pro scouts were eyeing him, and Kivlenieks decided to sign with the Blue Jackets. 

He was slated to be a backup at the AHL level his first pro season, but injuries forced him into the fire and he played 43 games with the Monsters. Then last year, the opposite happened, as he was banged up and found a hard time seeing the ice, even spending eight games at the ECHL level and then backing up veteran Brad Thiessen during Cleveland's playoff run a year ago. In the end he played just 14 games at the AHL level last year with a 3.71 GAA and .873 save percentage. 

This year has gone more according to plan, with Kivlenieks splitting time with Veini Vehvilainen when he's been in Cleveland. He posted a 3.04 GAA and .896 save percentage in 16 games with the Monsters, then answered the call when Korpisalo went down. 

Along the way, he's stuck with his dream, and when asked postgame if he had a message to the youngsters trying to follow in his footsteps, he had an easy answer. 

"Honestly, everything is possible," he said. "I've pretty much been in every league. You just have to commit and believe it, honestly. I know it's kind of hard, but if you believe it and work hard and keep doing the right things, everything is possible." 

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