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Canada’s Poulin rises from obscurity for shot at Olympic immortality

Kevin Poulin was thrust into the Olympic spotlight in Canada's quarterfinal meeting with Finland, and now the 27-year-old journeyman netminder may be asked to backstop his country to gold.

Kevin Poulin started last season with the Laval Predateurs of the Ligue Nord Americaine de Hockey, which is essentially Quebec’s version of Slap Shot. For a hockey player, you can’t get much lower than that. He spent only one game there – allowing five goals in his only appearance – before finding work in the KHL, but it still speaks to where his career was at the time.

Fast-forward 17 months later and Poulin is one win away from playing for an Olympic gold medal. It’s an incredible story any way you look at it. He’s an NHL journeyman who until a month ago was playing for a team called Zagreb Medvescak KHL, which is confusing on a number of levels. First, it’s a team based in Croatia that plays in the Austrian Hockey League. Second, the KHL stands for Klub Hockeyja Na Ledu and has nothing to do with the top league in Russia. What makes all of this even more hard to believe is the fact that he earned a contract with Kloten of the Swiss League, only to get hurt in practice, which seriously jeopardized his chance to even play in the Olympics.

But ever since Poulin donned the Canadian sweater this season and began his quest for the Olympic team, he has been lights out. Taking over for starter Ben Scrivens – who looked an awful lot like he had suffered a concussion – early in the second period of Canada’s 1-0 win over Finland in the quarterfinal, Poulin has been perfect in these Games, stopping all 34 shots he has face. All told, Poulin has a 7-1-0 record for Canada this season with, get this, a 0.88 goals-against average and a .966 save percentage. And that save percentage doesn’t include a perfect period against Sweden in a pre-tournament game because shots on goal weren’t recorded. Aside from the Olympics, he was outstanding in leading Canada to the Spengler Cup, stopping all 36 shots he faced in the championship game.

It’s been quite some time since Canada has had to rely on goaltending to steal games in an international tournament. Traditionally, its goaltending has had to simply be good, not great, and instead of having to win games, has been more relied upon to not lose them. And on a team that is proving to be every bit as stingy defensively at this level of hockey as the Canadian Olympic entry was in 2014 in Sochi, that’s basically the case this time around. This team has done a terrific job of limiting chances against and the defense tandem of Chris Lee and Mat Robinson has provided much of the defensive heavy lifting against the opponents’ top lines. Going into the quarterfinal, Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen had been the offensive star of the tournament with nine points in six games, but was reduced to a non-factor against Canada, registering just two shots on goal.

There’s no guarantee this will result in Poulin carrying the load the rest of the way for Canada. In fact, Canadian coach Willie Desjardins will be faced with a difficult decision should Scrivens be healthy enough to play in the semifinal against Germany on Friday. But after the upheaval Poulin has endured over the years, he’s probably used to it. He’s played for six different teams over the past four seasons as he continues to chase his big-league dreams at the age of 27.

The fact that Poulin is playing in Austria is a testament to the depth of talent at the goaltending position and just how hard it is for a young goaltender to stick in The League That Shall Not Be Named™. Poulin has been a part of three organizations – the Islanders, Tampa Bay and Calgary – and has failed to stick with any one of them consistently. It’s true that goaltenders develop at a slower pace than other position players, but when there are that many guys out there vying for so few jobs, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. There’s no telling where Poulin’s career will take him after this season, but after his Olympic performance, perhaps there might be a team in The League That Shall Not Be Named™ that might be willing to give him another chance with a two-way contract that would allow him to work his way back from the minors. Hey, it happened with Tim Thomas, who got a shot with Boston’s American League affiliate at the same age Poulin will be next season.

There’s a good chance this likely isn’t on Poulin’s mind at the moment as he chases a gold medal and a chance to gain a measure of immortality in Canadian hockey circles. And if he keeps backstopping his country the way he has all this season, that could very well happen.

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