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Gudlevskis gets nod in net, hopes to show improvement

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

During Game Two of Tampa Bay's Eastern Conference first round playoff matchup against the Montreal Canadiens, backup goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis was inserted midway through the third period for starter Anders Lindback.

The Lightning were looking for "a spark" head coach Jon Cooper said postgame with the Bolts trailing 3-0 and in danger of falling behind two-games-to-none in the season series.

In a difficult spot, facing his first rush, Gudlevskis promptly gave up the Canadiens' fourth goal when he was slow to react to a rebound. The Lightning would lose 4-1.

Trailing 3-1 in the second period of Game 4, Gudlevskis again relieved Lindback and kept the Canadiens off the scoreboard while the Lightning battled back to tie 3-3. But, with 46.2 seconds remaining in the game, the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty scored off a rebound while on the power play to seal the series and eliminate the Lightning from the postseason.

Coming in midway through a playoff game is a difficult challenge for any goalie, let alone one with little to no NHL experience. Before the series against the Canadiens, Gudlevskis had made just one NHL appearance, that coming in the next to last regular season game against Columbus.

Gudlevskis' performance against Montreal was admirable considering the unusual circumstances.

"He played very well last year for us in Montreal," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "He gave us a chance to win that hockey game."

Gudlevskis will make his 2014-15 debut Thursday when the Lightning travel to Nashville to play the Predators in the second preseason game for both teams. The 22-year-old Latvian will go the full game for the Lightning, two days after Andrei Vasilevskiy went the distance against the Predators and helped lead the Bolts to a 4-2 win.

"I think I feel much better than last year because this year I have a little bit more experience with American conditioning and stuff like that," Gudlevskis said. "I feel more comfortable here, so I'm pretty excited."

Gudlevskis gained extensive experience last season at a number of different levels. While splitting time between Syracuse (AHL) and the Florida Everblades (ECHL), Gudlevskis put up solid numbers, going 18-11-4 at Syracuse and posting a 1.83 goals-against average with the Everblades.

During the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in February, Gudlevskis nearly engineered the upset of the tournament as his Latvian side fell 2-1 to heavily-favored Canada. Gudlevskis saved 55-of-57 shots to keep Latvia in striking range and earned considerable praise following the performance. And then there were the three NHL games, two of which came in the playoffs.

Gudlevskis hopes to use last season's action as a spring board to a better season in 2014-15, starting with tonight's preseason game.

"I want to see how much I improved from last season to this season," he said. "You never know what's going to happen, but I just want to feel better from last year. I want to feel more confident."

Bowness said a game like tonight's against Nashville is a good test for a goalie because of the scrambling nature of such games. Also, playing at home, the Predators will likely use more of their regular starters.

"There's more breakdowns. There's less talk. There's no familiarity with the guys in front of you," Bowness said. "So from a goaltending perspective, you've got to be sharp, you've got to stay focused, and I know that's the areas he wants to stay for it. You talk about his mental work, games like this help."

JOHNSON AND PALAT DEBUT

Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were breakout stars for the Lightning last season, finishing second and third, respectively, in voting for the NHL's Calder Trophy given to the league's rookie of the year.

Palat and Johnson will make their preseason debut tonight against Nashville and will play together on the same line along with Richard Panik.

"You never know what the lines are going to be in the season, but for tonight, it's going to be nice playing with (Palat) and with Panik as well," Johnson said. "The three of us played together for two years. It's nice that we already have that familiarity, especially preseason when you don't really have a whole lot going on since there's only limited practice time."

Palat finished second on the Lightning during the 2013-14 regular season with 59 points on 23 goals and 36 assists. Johnson ranked fourth on the team with 24 goals and contributed 50 points.

Replicating those seasons will be a challenge, but Bowness feels both players are capable of having even greater years in 2014-15.

"They're two great young players, just keep playing and keep getting better," Bowness said. "The more experience, the more they play, the more they continue to grow. Those two guys are just solid, solid character guys, heart and soul guys who can play at a very high level and a very consistent level, so we just expect that to continue to grow."

DROUIN UPDATE

Top prospect Jonathan Drouin was on the ice for the early portion of the Bolts' pregame skate ahead of tonight's game at Nashville. Drouin did some light stick work and shot on an empty net.

Mostly, though, the 19-year-old observed while the Lightning worked on their systems.

"Obviously, I want to be playing in those preseason games and jump right into it once the season starts," Drouin said. "Not much you can do about it. It's disappointing. I've got to move on and make sure I'm ready physically and mentally when everything comes."

Drouin, whose thumb is stabilized by a split underneath his glove when he's on the ice, said there was a little pain while he shot.

"I think (today) is just maybe a little step, but there are many more steps to come before I start shooting the way I want to," he said.

Lightning general manager and vice president Steve Yzerman gave Drouin a vote of confidence, saying that the injury will have no bearing on whether he makes the team or not.

"You get nervous. You don't want to go back anywhere. You want to stay here," Drouin said. "From him saying that, it's a good thing. Like I said, I want to be on this lineup. As soon as this season starts, I want to push for it. I'm sure I'll be fine."

NOTES

Bowness said he expects a better performance from the Predators playing on their home ice without having to travel the day of the game. The Lightning are flying to Nashville Thursday afternoon after a morning skate, so the challenge for the Bolts will be to keep a consistent effort for all three periods. "You're not used to traveling and playing," he said. "I think you saw it a little bit against Nashville (Tuesday), all of a sudden, third period, (Nashville) had no legs. So, what we want to make sure is even though it's a tough day, we practice, we travel, we play then we put that full 60-minute effort on the ice."…Gudlevskis said playing a game the same day as traveling shouldn't be an issue for him considering his experience with the Crunch last season. "At Syracuse, we rode the bus on game day and then played," he said. "So I should be fine."…The Lightning have a short turnaround before hosting the Dallas Stars in preseason game No. 3 on Friday, September 25, at Amalie Arena.

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