A year ago this week, the 2014 Sochi Olympics entered the knockout round. To celebrate, NHL.com looks at three players who used one of hockey's biggest stages to grab the spotlight and parlay their celebrity into the 2014-15 NHL season.
Today, we look at Latvia goalie Kristers Gudlevskis, who went from unheralded backup to Olympic star with his performance against Canada in the quarterfinals.
Not long after upsetting Switzerland in the qualification round of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Latvia coach Ted Nolan made up his mind.
On tap in the quarterfinals was Canada, the favorite to win the gold medal for the second consecutive Olympic Games. Nolan turned to an unknown goalie named Kristers Gudlevskis, who in his Olympic debut allowed five goals to eventual silver-medal winner Sweden.
Latvia's top goalie was Edgars Masalskis, who made 32 saves in the win that eliminated Switzerland, but Nolan's instincts led him to Gudlevskis. Nolan's reasoning suggested not playing Masalskis in consecutive games of the grueling tournament. His gut told him plainly that it was Gudlevskis' time.
"I told him there would be a big moment for you coming up in the Olympics," said Nolan, coach of the Buffalo Sabres. "We knew we would play him in that game [against Canada] because of his size and athleticism, and youthful enthusiasm. Youthful enthusiasm sometimes overcomes that lack of experience sometimes."
One year ago in Sochi, Russia, Gudlevskis validated Nolan's trust with one of the greatest performances in Olympic history when he made 55 saves in a 2-1 loss. The result ended Latvia's storybook run but carved a permanent place for the goalie and country in Olympic annals.
"He was just diving for pucks and they were hitting them all over the place, so to see him do that performance was one of the things I'm sure he'll remember for the rest of his life," Nolan said.
Latvia, the second-lowest seed ahead of Norway, needed a miracle against Canada and nearly got it. Canada had 16 shots on goal in the first period, 19 in the second and 22 in the decisive third that began in a 1-1 tie and with the very real possibility that Latvia would pull off the upset.
Gudlevskis, 21 at the time, had the national team and an entire country on his shoulders. Pressure? Hardly.
"If you're a goalie you can't think about the pressure," Gudlevskis said. "All you try to think about is things that you can control. All I was thinking about was trying to stop the next shot.
"When I play I don't think too much. I try to focus on the next shot. If you're a goalie you understand that you can't think too much. You just need to react and do what you can control."
What Gudlevskis was controlling was Latvia's destiny, making save after save against Canada's shooting gallery. Victory was far from ensured, but Gudlevskis was creating a spectacle.
"He's a hard-working kid," said Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons, Gudlevskis' Latvian teammate. "I played with him a couple times in World Juniors and World Championships and the guy just loves to work hard and he never gives up on the play, so I think that was the main thing in that game against Canada in the Olympics.
"We thought that's his day, the best day of his life probably."
Canada finally broke through at 13:06 of the third with Shea Weber's power-play goal, Canada's 53rd shot which beat Gudlevskis low on the stick side. The scoreboard read Canada 2, Latvia 1 with Gudlevskis facing 57 shots compared to Carey Price's 16, but the fifth-round pick (No. 124) of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2013 NHL Draft -- the second Latvian goalie selected by an NHL team -- became a national hero.
"It's always a surprise but I was not surprised that he was able to play like that," said Sabres goaltending coach Arturs Irbe, the first Latvian goalie drafted (No. 196 by the Minnesota North Stars in 1989). "It was remarkable that he could deliver that type of performance at the right time, at that venue, that stage, that point and under that pressure."
Gudlevskis' story didn't end in Sochi. He made 36 saves in his NHL debut, a 3-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 11, 2014. He appeared in two Stanley Cup Playoff games of the Lightning's four-game series loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2014 Eastern Conference First Round. When he played four games for Latvia in the 2014 IIHF World Championship, he became the first player to compete in the ECHL, American Hockey League, the Olympics, the NHL and the World Championship in the same year.
"You don't think about it when the season is going," Gudlevskis said. "You realize it only after the season."
One year after playing the game of his life, Gudlevskis is the No. 1 goalie for Syracuse of the AHL and closer to again playing in the NHL. Whether it's with the Lightning, where he's behind Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy on the organizational depth chart, or not, he's already proved to the world he's legit, 55 times over.
"I think six months before [the Sochi Olympics] he was kicked off a city bus in Latvia because he didn't have enough money to pay for a ticket to get to practice," Nolan said, "and all of a sudden he walks into a rink with brand-new pads on and earphones and looking like an NHL player, so it's a great story and great to see."
NHL.com writer Mike G. Morreale contributed to this story.