Bolts goaltender Ben Bishop, a Vezina Award candidate and unquestionably the team’s MVP this season, was stretchered off the ice after appearing to injure his left leg while scrambling to get back in net to take away a Pens scoring opportunity.
Backup netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy came off the bench and, under difficult circumstances, shut down the postseason’s best attack, stopping 25 of 26 shots he faced to pick up his second-ever playoff victory (both coming in relief appearances).
The Bolts have been a resilient bunch all season with their ability to not just deal with but thrive following injuries to their captain and leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos and top pair defenseman Anton Stralman.
Losing Bishop though might be too much for even this group to overcome.
We should know more about Bishop’s status for the rest of the series later this weekend. But let’s forget about the bad news for a little bit and focus on the good, which we’ll break down in today’s 3 Things.
1. VASY, VASY, VASY…OY, OY, OY!
Andrei Vasilevskiy hadn’t played in a game since coming on in relief for Bishop in Game 1 of the Second Round. Before that, his last action was in the regular season finale against Montreal.
That means, when Vasilevskiy was called upon to enter Game 1, he did so with just 90 minutes of ice time over the last month under his belt.
Vasilevskiy has admitted in the past that his infrequent appearances in games have been difficult to deal with, the lack of playing time leaving him rusty and off his game when he does get in. But Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said nobody puts in more effort during practice and works harder at his craft than Vasilevskiy, and that work ethic paid off on Friday when he was able to step into a pressure-packed situation and thrive.
“If there’s one thing that Vasilevskiy will never be knocked for, it’s preparation and work ethic,” Cooper said. “It’s in his DNA. You never want to lose Bish, but nobody on the bench 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 that for us tonight, especially in the third.”
Alex Killorn echoed those sentiments when he was asked about Vasilevskiy’s performance during the post-game press conference.
“He’s definitely one of the hardest workers on our team, a guy that comes in every day and works hard,” he said. “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 that you have a lot of confidence in, it helps the team for sure.”
There was no panic on the Lightning bench when Bishop went down. There was concern for their teammate, for sure, but the Bolts knew they had a more-than-capable replacement in Vasilevskiy.
How long Vasilevskiy will have to replace Bishop is unknown, but the Lightning won’t let an injury to a major component of their team derail their Stanley Cup dreams.
The Bolts’ resiliency has shown all season and will be tested once again.
“I think a lot of that comes from last year, the run we had and the confidence we had in this group coming back this year,” Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. “…We’ve had that mentality it’s the next guy up, and the next guy steps in and does the job. It’s been the whole group all year. It was the whole group last year when we made that push, so we have a very deep team and I think that’s been a big key for us. Obviously, you want to avoid these injuries, guys going down. But when they do, I think we have that mentality of guys stepping in and being ready to play.”
Vasilevskiy was ready to step in and play Friday night.
And the Lightning took home-ice advantage in the ECF away from the Penguins as a result.
2. BLOCK PARTY
Vasilevskiy admitted after Game 1 he wasn’t sharp upon entering the game.
“My first two periods, I felt not good,” he said. “I was cold.”
But he didn’t really need to be sharp because his teammates in front of him kept the puck from reaching his net.
“I don’t know if we gave up a shot after he came in,” Cooper said. “I think we went through a stretch where we outshot them 11-2 after Vasy came in, and I think that’s probably big just for him because he’s got to jump into the lion’s den there and he didn’t have to face any. So he got to get a feel for the game and what was going on…I think our guys did a really good job of just giving him time to get into the game.”
Tampa Bay’s biggest weapon in defending the Pens was the blocked shot. Anytime Pittsburgh was in danger of getting a good look at goal, a Bolt willingly slid down onto the ice to get in the way, sacrificing his body and temporary pain for the good of the team.
“Huge. For sure,” Vasilevskiy said. “When guys play in front of you that to block shots and just fight for a goalie, it’s just, I get some confidence and thanks for our guys.”
The Lightning finished Game 1 with 20 blocked shots. Their ability to get into shooting lanes disrupted the Pens’ attack and helped hold the top offense in the playoffs (Pittsburgh averaged 3.36 goals per game in the postseason entering Game 1) to just one goal, that coming on a power play.
“We tried to defend as best we could,” Bolts center Brian Boyle said. “The lead helped.”
3. EARLY PENALTY KILL SETS TONE
The Lightning had two near-misses in the first couple minutes of the game. Victor Hedman sent a shot toward net from the edge of the left circle that took a deflection and went under Penguins goalie Matt Murray but hit the post and bounced away. Shortly after, Jonathan Drouin hit Ondrej Palat with a pinpoint pass as Palat charged the back post, but Murray made an incredible save to get over and rob Palat with his glove.
The Bolts had all the momentum in the early going, but that quickly vanished when Ryan Callahan was sent to the penalty box for a five-minute major after boarding Kris Letang. The hit put Letang out of the game for a while, although he would come back to skate over 27 minutes. (Callahan, by the way, won’t receive supplemental discipline from the league it was announced on Saturday).
The Penguins have been dangerous on the power play in the playoffs, ranking tied for third in the NHL with a 27.5 percent success rate. They had a chance to take an early lead in the game and maybe even net multiple goals to take complete control.
But, the Bolts’ penalty kill, as it’s done all playoffs, responded in a big way.
“They’ve got some pretty good hockey players over there, so you never want to give them that advantage for five minutes,” Cooper said. “But I thought our guys, they dug their heels in. I didn’t think we gave them a whole lot. When we did, Ben was there. It really, when you kill that off, you expend a lot of energy, but you could just see, we got a little bit taller on our bench when we got through that.”
The Lightning gave up just four shots on the five-minute major.
Ben Bishop made every save.
From there, the Lightning were able to settle into the game and build a 3-0 lead.
Tampa Bay is averaging nearly 17 penalty minutes a game during the playoffs, most among teams remaining in the playoffs.
That has to change if the Bolts are to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
But, so far at least, it hasn’t hurt them much because of the job the penalty kill has done throughout the postseason.