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Andrei Vasilevskiy justifies Lightning's confidence

by Brian Compton / Tampa Bay Lightning

PITTSBURGH -- Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy woke up Friday morning as a backup, someone who was only supposed to see playing time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs should the No. 1 goalie, Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, have an off night.

But less than 13 minutes into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center, Bishop was laying on the ice in agony, clutching his left knee after falling awkwardly while trying to get back to his crease.

Suddenly, Vasilevskiy became the man. He wasn't the least bit rattled in a 25-save performance that helped the Lightning win 3-1 in the opener of this best-of-7 series.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said X-rays on Bishop were negative, but Vasilevskiy will likely get the start in Game 2 at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

It's an opportunity Vasilevskiy relishes.

"That's why I'm here," he said with a smile.

It's that confidence and poise that has the Lightning believing that not even an injury to their Vezina Trophy finalist can stop them from returning to the Stanley Cup Final. Vasilevskiy entered training camp last fall knowing he wasn't going to receive a lot of starts (he ended up playing 24 games), but that didn't stop him from doing everything in his power to get better. His teammates took notice.

"I think he's definitely one of the hardest workers on our team, a guy that comes in every day and works hard," said forward Alex Killorn, who gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead 18:46 into the game. "It's tough when you're a backup goalie and you never know when you're going to get your chance. He was obviously ready tonight.

"Whenever you can have a goalie that comes in, a backup you have a lot of confidence in, it helps the team for sure."

Vasilevskiy didn't have much to do over the final 7:35 of the first period; led by Victor Hedman, the Lightning held the Penguins to one shot on goal. Killorn gave them the lead with 1:14 left and Ondrej Palat made it 2-0 with a power-play goal 2:33 into the second. Jonathan Drouin extended the lead when he one-timed Palat's cross-ice feed into the net with 1:35 left in the period.

That was more than enough support for Vasilevskiy, who stopped all 16 shots he faced in the third to secure the win. Patric Hornqvist's power-play goal in the final minute of the second period, a laser from the right circle after a nifty no-look backhand feed from Sidney Crosby, was the only shot that got past him,

"The first period, I [didn't feel] good," Vasilevskiy said. "I was cold and it's tough mentally. But when we scored three goals, I got some confidence. The third period, I felt pretty well. I got some shots and just warming up."

Hedman, the cornerstone of the Lightning's defense, was impressed.

"He was tremendous," Hedman said. "I can't really put into words how good he was. To come in like that, conference final, he showed last year in the Final as well when he came in. You're pretty impressed by a 21-year-old to come in like that and play as well as he did."

The Lightning had high hopes for Vasilevskiy long before his performance Friday. Tampa Bay's first-round pick (No. 19) at the 2012 NHL Draft, Vasilevskiy was 20 years old when he made his debut after 25 games with Syracuse of the American Hockey League. He wouldn't be at the sport's highest level if he wasn't ready.

"I know it was a year ago, but for somebody as young as he is, he's already played in the Stanley Cup Final," Cooper said, referring to the two relief appearances Vasilevskiy made against the Chicago Blackhawks last June. "He was called on in the biggest moments last year. Talk about pushing somebody a little bit down the learning curve a little faster than we wanted to. There's clichés thrown around all the time -- guys that are first to the rink and last to leave and those types of things. But with that kid, it's actually true.

"If there's one thing that Vasilevskiy will never be knocked for, it's for preparation and work ethic. That's in his DNA. You never want to lose [Bishop], but on the bench, I don't think anyone was sitting there thinking, 'Oh we're nervous; Vasilevskiy's going in.' We've kind of run with this tandem all year. He's a rock and he was there for us tonight, especially in the third."

Vasilevskiy would have seen more pucks in Game 1 had it not been for the dedication in front of him; the Lightning finished with 20 blocked shots, including five in the third period.

"Huge, for sure," Vasilevskiy said. "When guys play in front of you like that, block shots and box out, just fighting for the goalies, I get some confidence. Thanks for the guys."

Even if Bishop is able to return at some point in this series, the Lightning are thankful to have a backup who won't get rattled regardless of the stage. Vasilevskiy has shown he can step in and perform when called upon. If they need him Monday, even if they need him the rest of the way, he's excited for the challenge.

"That's my dream," Vasilevskiy said. "Bishop is a huge loss for us, but I will do everything that I can."

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