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Rookie goalie helps Lightning hold off Blue Jackets

by Lonnie Herman

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning got big performances from two unlikely heroes against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night.

Goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis stopped 36 shots in his NHL debut and low-scoring defenseman Eric Brewer had two goals to help the Lightning to a 3-2 victory at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Gudlevskis, who made 55 saves for Latvia against Canada at the Sochi Olympics, began the season with the Florida Everblades in the ECHL, was moved up to the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League and was called up this week after starter Ben Bishop was injured.

“It’s hard to say how nervous I was,” Gudlevskis said. “I was real excited. I just tried to enjoy the moment. I knew I needed to make the first save to get my confidence up.”

Nervous or not, Lightning coach Jon Cooper knew he needed to get Gudlevskis in a game before the Stanley Cup Playoffs start next week. Bishop is questionable for the start of the playoffs; if he can't play, backup Anders Lindback figures to get the call and Gudlevskis could find himself dressing.

“It’s no difference if it was going to be Bishop or Lindback or Lindback and Gudlevskis, whoever the two goalies were, you never know when you are going to need your guys,” Cooper said. “We thought guys needed some reps before they went into the playoffs. If something were to happen and Gudlevskis had to go in, I didn’t want his first game to be a playoff game.”

As it turned out, Gudlevskis fulfilled Cooper’s most important qualification.

“He won. That’s how I judge goaltenders, win the game,” Cooper said. “That’s what he did. He was up to the task. He was outstanding.”

The victory moved the Lightning (45-27-9) past the Montreal Canadiens into second place in the Atlantic Division. Each team has one game remaining. The second-place finisher will have the home-ice advantage in their Eastern Conference First Round series.

Columbus (42-32-7) holds the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Blue Jackets can assure themselves of a first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins by beating the Florida Panthers in their season finale on Saturday night.

Brewer, who had one goal before scoring Thursday, scored twice during Tampa Bay's three-goal second period against Columbus backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who finished with 19 saves.

“They were “seeing eye” pucks for sure,” Brewer said. “I’m not shooting the puck any different than before, it’s just going in. I wish I had an answer because I would be doing more of it and earlier.”

Columbus cut the Lightning's lead to one goal at 16:37 of the third period whenDavid Savard scored his fifth of the season after taking a centering pass from Boone Jenner. But Gudlevskis stopped Columbus' other 10 shots in the period.

Tampa Bay opened the scoring with a power-play goal 3:55 into the second period.Ondrej Palat took a centering pass from behind the net by Alex Killorn and slipped the puck behind McElhinney for his 23rd goal of the season.

Jenner tied it at 13:46 with a power-play goal.

But Brewer put the Lightning ahead to stay 68 seconds later. Cedric Paquette, who was also making his NHL debut, won a faceoff to Brewer at the left point and his shot beat McElhinney.

Brewer scored again at 18:06 when his shot hit McElhinney in the mask, then bounced up and over the Columbus goaltender. Michael Kostka assisted, his third assist since returning to the lineup on Thursday from a concussion.

The Blue Jackets didn't test Gudlevskis until 6:30 had elapsed, but once they got a shot through, they came in bunches. He finished the scoreless first period with 14 saves.

"When we play with some emotion and have some direction, we started to skate and push, Columbus coach Todd Richards said. "I think it backed them off and gave us a needed push.”

The Lightning were without three regulars for most of the game.Valtteri Filppula was scratched with a lower-body injury,Teddy Purcell sat out with the flu and defenseman Victor Hedman left with a lower-body injury after skating 1:42 in the first period. Additionally, Ondrej Palat left the bench in the third period after taking a hard hit.

After the game, Cooper refused to take any questions about the injuries but he did make a reference to the Lightning's rash of banged-up players.

“I gave my post-game speech in the trainer’s room tonight,” he said.

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