Even as most of the Tampa Bay Lightning roster heads to the various places they call "home" for the Olympic break, what has been a challenging, injury-riddled season carried on as the Olympic men's hockey tournament kicked off at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia this morning (afternoon?).
With Latvia vs. Switzerland and Sweden vs. Czech Republic on the ledger as the opening games, there was plenty of opportunity for the Lightning players that made it to Sochi to have an impact, even as some of the team's best players this season were inexplicably snubbed (Ben Bishop, Victor Hedman) or replaced due to untimely injury (Valterri Filppula, Steven Stamkos).
Not all goes as planned, however.
Latvia (0) vs. Switzerland (1)
This match featured just one Tampa Bay Lightning player -- goaltending prospect Kristers Gudlevskis, who has been on an ECHL, AHL, NHL, and now Olympic roster this season. In a somewhat surprising move, however, Latvia (and Buffalo Sabres) head coach Ted Nolan opted not to start the 21-year old netminder that posted a .925 save percentage in 4 games for Latvia at the World Championships last May.
Instead, Nolan opted for Edgars Masalskis, a 33-year old goaltender currently on HK SKP Poprad's roster of the Slovak Extraliga whose last professional games were played in the 2012-2013 season with Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk of the KHL. Latvia was under siege all night long from a balanced, efficient (if less than dynamic) Swiss attack that included NHL forwards like Nino Neiderreiter of the Minnesota Wild and Damien Brunner of the New Jersey Devils, as well as a player still on the Lightning's radar in Reto Suri. Masalskis was superb, stopping 38 of 39 shots as Latvia was outshot 39-21, but the Swiss broke through with 7.9 seconds remaining on a goal by Simon Moser to claim the 1-0 regulation victory and the three points in the standings.
Per various sources, Gudlevskis was the back-up in part due to concerns with his fatigue and readiness following the transatlantic journey to Sochi:
Why no Gudlevskis? Brian Engblom & @KennyAlbert report KG w/ edge in talent but Ted Nolan says KG hasn't adjusted to timezone very well yet.— Dan D'Uva (@Dan_DUva) February 12, 2014
So jet lag may have kept him out of the opener against Switzerland, but Latvia' next scheduled match is Friday against Czech Republic, and it may see Gudlevskis continuing to ride the pine after the terrific showing in net from Masalskis.
Czech Republic (2) vs. Sweden (4)
Another game that was supposed to feature some more prominent Tampa Bay Lightning players ended up ... not, as Radko Gudas was held out of this match due to a fever:
Radko Gudas seems unlikely to play vs. Sweden on Wednesday due to a fever: http://t.co/pY1xYDvARd— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) February 11, 2014
That left just rookie forward Ondrej Palat representing the Lightning in this match-up which was all Sweden early. Taking advantage of the relatively weak goaltending and blue line for Czech Republic, the Swedes attacked early and often, jumping out to a 4-0 lead on the back of their power play and Erik Karlsson's two tallies. While the Czechs scored a pair of unanswered goals -- from Marek Zidlicky and Jaromir Jagr -- to bring the final score closer, which helps with potential future tiebreakers, this game was Sweden's all game long.
Palat skated mostly in the top-6 alongside David Krejci of the Boston Bruins and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers. He skated just 13:30 on 14 shifts for the game, however, including only 3:01 in the final period with the Czechs looking to draw closer. He appeared to take a few penalty kill shifts early but was not used prominently on either special teams unit, as he was replaced by Jagr on the Krejci line on the power play.
It may take some time for offensive chemistry to develop between Palat and his new linemates, but he was in the right spots when he was out on the ice, defended well and quickly moved the puck to lead breakouts and attacks when he got the opportunity to handle it. Holding on to that left wing spot with Krejci will be difficult however if that line doesn't start showing more offensively very soon in such a short tournament with one loss already in the books.
Finland will play Austria at 3AM Eastern time; that match will be followed up a few hours later by the debut of the host nation Russia vs. Slovenia (no Lightning players on either side) and the United States vs. Slovakia (Richard Panik).