People couldn’t help but notice Matiss Kivlenieks as he led the Columbus Blue Jackets team to a win in the first game of this year’s Traverse City Prospects Tournament on Friday.
And it wasn’t necessarily because of his impressive 19-save performance in the 7-2 win.
Sporting the green and gold pads and a green helmet adorned with two drawings of Peter Griffin that he wore in the USHL last year with Sioux City, Kivlenieks stood out playing for a team wearing its customary blue and red jersey.
“My equipment hasn’t come in yet,” Kivlenieks said somewhat sheepishly. “I think it should be here after this tournament. I’m looking forward to it.”
Matiss Kivlenieks - Cleveland Monsters/Columbus Blue Jackets | AHL/NHL. Concept design and paint by Allen Schneider @vicedesign @bluejacketsnhl #goalie #goaliemask #goaliemaskart #maskart #custompaint #goaliemaskpaint #cle #cleveland #monsters #columbus #cbj #cbus #ccm #goaliemaskairbrush #tendy #tendyswag
There’s a good reason for the 21-year-old to stick with the pads he’s had, though. The Latvian has stopped plenty of pucks with them.
A year ago with the Musketeers, Kivlenieks played in 49 games and finished the season with a 36-7-4-2 record, a .932 save percentage and five shutouts. He led nearly every statistical category in the league including wins and save percentage and was named not just the league’s top goaltender but its top player as well.
He was committed to join the hockey program at the Minnesota State, but that sterling play in the country’s top junior league caught the eye of professional scouts. Included in the group showing interest was the Blue Jackets, who signed him to a three-year entry-level contract in May.
"He piqued our interest right away," Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark told the team’s website in June. "In the simplest terms, in evaluating goaltenders, we look at the quality of their feet, the quality of their hands and the quality of their eyes. When you watch the speed and quickness of Matiss's feet, that allows him to stay ahead of the pace of activity. You see a goaltender that then is able to buy their eyes the time to do the work."
Kivlenieks looked the part in the prospects tournament opener against the Dallas Stars. He doesn’t take up as much net as some goaltenders these days at 6-2, 185, but he was always square to the puck and made himself big thanks to the speed of his movement. He was also calm in net, smothering pucks and controlling rebounds.
"I'm extremely happy," said John Madden, the coach of the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters who is leading the squad in Traverse City. "He played extremely well. I liked his composure the most. I love goalies that are composed. He got scored on on the 5-on-3, but you have to give it to that guy (Stars defenseman Niklas Hansson). It was a good shot. It would go in on any goalie. Just the way (Kivlenieks) rebounded back and stayed composed, it was fun to watch."
Madden seems ticketed to be Kivlenieks’ coach this season with the youngster likely slated to start the season with the Monsters. Getting the chance to start in the AHL would be just the latest step in progress for the Riga, Latvia, native who moved to the United States in 2013 to play in the Tier III Minnesota Junior Hockey League.
It was, as you might imagine, a transition for the then-16-year-old. On the ice, he had to get used to playing on a smaller ice surface – international rinks are 100 feet wide, rather than the standard 85 in North America – while there was a language barrier off of it.
“When I got to Minnesota, I couldn’t really speak English,” said Kivlenieks, who possesses a much greater command of the language now. “People were really nice to me, but I couldn’t really say anything back because I didn’t really know English. It took me a while, about three weeks or so, to start talking to them.”
After two years in the MNJHL, he moved up to the Tier II North American Hockey League, putting himself on the map while playing with the Coulee Region Chill. That season, 2015-16, Kivlenieks played in 29 games and posted a 2.41 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
That earned him the chance to move up to Sioux City last year, and as they say, the rest is history.
“I came to the United States when I was 16 and I thought it was a better opportunity for me to develop,” he said. “I tried to move up every year, and then I had an opportunity last year to play in the best junior hockey league in the United States. I was just happy to be there, and it ended up going really well.”
Now, if he can just get those new pads in his possession…
“You know how people say Christmas came early?” Kivlenieks said with a smile. “It’s always like that when goalies get new gear.”