Hockey fans in Latvia will never forget May 21, 2021. The day the little team that could, did. Latvia, the hosts of the World Hockey Championship, went up against the big dogs from Canada and not only beat them for the first time ever, but shut them out for good measure.
In a game like that where the talent disparity was huge, the underdogs always need a saving grace. Goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks stopped all 38 shots to earn the shutout, and it didn’t take long until his team, and the city of Riga, was singing his praises.
“He was unbelievable,” forward Ralfs Freibergs said of Kivlenieks. “For Latvia, 90 percent of winning a game is always the goalie. He didn’t give anything to Canada, nothing.
Canada is no stranger to facing strong Latvian goaltenders. Whether it was Artus Irbe many moons ago or Kristers Gudlevskis back at the 2014 Olympics, Canada seems to find trouble whenever they’re up against Latvia. Kivlenieks had never previously started a game against Canada, and with just two NHL and eight AHL games to his credit, there wasn’t much of a book on the 24-year-old goalie as of late.
Maybe that was the issue, but Latvia sits second in its group, it’s not hard to get excited about the performances Kivlenieks has pulled off. He has only played in two games, but Kivlenieks managed to shutout Canada and lost 3-2 in the shootout to Kazakhstan the day after. HIs 67 saves on 69 shots through two games have been vital to Latvia’s early tournament success, and if Latvia really believes they have a chance on home ice, Kivlenieks will need to be important.
But let’s think bigger picture here. Kivlenieks could end up being one of the top goaltenders at this tournament and if Latvia finds themselves in medal contention, it’ll likely because of Kivlenieks’ heroics. But he’s an NHL prospect, and with the Columbus Blue Jackets expected to move on from one of the team’s existing goaltenders – Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo – this off-season. Daniil Tarasov, a 22-year-old out of the KHL, is ready for full-time AHL duty in Cleveland, so if Merzlikins or Korpisalo find themselves moved and don’t bring in someone else, it could be time for Kivlenieks to get a shot.
Kivlenieks is just below the average NHL goalie height of 6-foot-3, but he has built a career of battling for every opportunity he has. He moved over from Latvia to the United States in 2013-14 and played in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League, a Tier III junior league that hasn’t produced many big-name NHLers. He then moved to the USHL where he started nearly every game en route to the goaltender of the year award.
The natural progression? Becoming an AHL starter, of course. Since 2017-18, he has mainly spent time with Cleveland, but since starting 43 games in 2017-18, he has only gotten into 42 AHL games over the past three seasons, with small runs in the NHL and ECHL. So his workload hasn’t been that crazy over the past few years, especially with a couple of injuries thrown in, but could he still be ready for a backup role in Columbus?
In his limited action, Kivlenieks has been quite solid. His .929 save percentage and 1.90 goals-saved-above average is good for a guy who only has been thrust into action in dire times and his .844 high-danger save percentage at 5-on-5 suggests he’s been good under pressure. It’s a small sample size, but he hasn’t disappointed.
The decision of which goalie they’ll move is looming, and after finishing last in the Central Division, the Blue Jackets are going to want to be busy. The team has $25 million in projected cap space for 2021-22 with Patrik Laine being the only notable RFA to deal with. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are signed until the end of 2022, and after flashes of brilliance from both over the past two seasons, teams looking to bolster their goalie position could get value from either of them.
Both are 27 years old, so it’s not like one has an age advantage. The Blue Jackets have a bigger book on Korpisalo, but Merzlikins has the tendency to absolutely shock everyone. His overall body of work suggests he should be the guy moving forward, and if you throw in Kivlenieks into the mix, you could create an interesting Latvian duo that could work in Columbus’ favor.
If the Blue Jackets decide to bring someone else in, you’ll have to wonder about Kivlenieks’ long-term future in Columbus. Tarasov is an impressive prospect that could hold starter potential in a few years. Kivlenieks appears to be more suited as a backup, but the Blue Jackets need to internally believe that, too.
With his limited action this year, the World Championship is a perfect platform for Kivlenieks to continue rising up the team’s goaltending depth chart. If Kivlenieks ends up going on an absolute tear the rest of the way, we could be talking about someone that will indeed get a shot at the NHL level in the same way Kevin Lankinen did this year in Chicago after a great 2019 tournament for Finland.
Kivlenieks still has a lot to prove if he’s going to have a prosperous NHL career. But at least he’s giving himself every chance possible to prove why he deserves more of a shot.