Surprise Lightning starter Andrei Vasilevskiy stepped in for injured goalie Ben Bishop and gave Tampa Bay what it needed in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks.
CHICAGO — The message that Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper gave to Andrei Vasilevskiy when he informed his 20-year-old goalie that he would be starting Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final was simple.
“You’re in, and that’s it,” Vasilevskiy said of Cooper’s news after Wednesday’s morning skate that Ben Bishop, who is listed as day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, would be sitting out.
During his media session after the skate, Cooper was coy about whether the ailing Bishop would play. There has been a lot of speculation about the goaltender’s injury since he had to leave Game 2 in Tampa Bay twice, but neither the coach nor the players will reveal what is wrong. All Cooper said was, “I think we're in the same holding pattern as we were 48 hours ago,” and he noted that we would have to wait until game time to see who would start in net for the Lightning.
In reality, the news of the lineup change came around 7:00 p.m., as Vasilevskiy led his teammates onto the ice for warmups. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville later joked after Chicago’s 2–1 victory that tied the series at two games apiece that his line changes weren’t the only surprise during warmups because his team “expected their other goalie in the net.”
Despite the change, several Chicago players said that though there were some adjustments to be made, the goaltender switch did not change the Blackhawks’ plan of attack.
“Regardless of who was starting the game, I think they got two big goaltenders who can make big stops for them,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “We want to do all those little things we've been talking about, the usual things as far as traffic and getting those shots through.”
Added forward Patrick Kane: “We knew that opportunity could present itself as the series went on. I think you don't want to change too much. You want to play the same way. Going into the game we want to put a lot of pucks on net and we end up with two in the first period. Not really how we wanted to start.”
Although Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said there was no question that the plan was to test the 6' 3" Vasilevskiy early, they couldn’t get much offense going in the opening period. Chicago had just two shots on goal in the first period, and were outshot 12-4 before Toews scored the game’s first goal at the 6:40 mark of the second. Vasilevskiy said the lack of shots early was both good and bad for him, but the middle and third periods of the game were more fun than the opener.
On Wednesday, Vasilevskiy became just the sixth goalie in NHL history to make his first career playoff start in the Stanley Cup Final, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He is the first to do it since 2006, when Jussi Markkanen started for the Edmonton Oilers in Game 2 against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the first to do it after earning his first postseason win, which he got in relief of Bishop in Game 2. Vasilevskiy was drafted by the Lightning at age 18 with the 19th pick in 2012, played two years in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, and is regarded as one of the NHL's most promising young netminders.
And although he doesn’t have much NHL experience, he has had success elsewhere. Last year he was awarded the Russia’s Order of Honour after its national team won the gold medal at the World Championship tournament. Because of that, while Cooper was impressed by Vasilevskiy’s performance on Wednesday night, he said it “validates what we've known all along.”
“If you tell me we're going to come in and he's going to give up two goals, that's a hell of a job in my book,” Cooper said. “He showed the pinnacle of the sport that he can play. That's a pretty big achievement for a 20-year-old.”
Still, Cooper promised that Bishop would see the ice again in the series, but that he wasn’t sure in which game that would be. But just as the Blackhawks said it didn’t make a huge difference who was in net for the Lightning, Cooper reiterated his support for both of his goaltenders.
“You put the kid on the stage, he's going to perform,” Copper said. “Pretty comforting for a coach knowing that you got those two guys back there in net for you.”