When the Tampa Bay Lightning begin the preseason schedule Tuesday at AMALIE Arena against the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m. puck drop on 970 WFLA), the Bolts will be without starting goaltender Ben Bishop and backup netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Bishop started the final game at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto for Team USA before the Americans were bounced from the tournament following the group stage. Vasilevskiy was with Team Russia in Toronto but never saw the ice during the WCH.
With both Bishop and Vasilevskiy just getting back to Tampa and having yet to suit up during Lightning training camp, goaltending duties for the Bolts' preseason opener will fall on the shoulders of a pair of prospects: Kristers Gudlevskis and Adam Wilcox.
Gudlevskis has appeared in just two regular season NHL games for the Lightning, including an overtime loss in Chicago last year when he made 31 saves to shut out the defending Stanley Cup champions in regulation before giving up the game's only goal in extra time.
Wilcox has never played in an NHL game, only appearing in two preseason games a year ago.
No matter which goalie starts against Carolina, both hope to show the improvement they've made during the offseason given the opportunity for more playing time early in the preseason.
"You get anxious for these games because obviously it's a NHL preseason game, but they're fun to kind of see how you stack up year after year," Wilcox said. "Developmental-wise, I think I'm a lot better from a year ago. These practices have been good, and the games have gotten better and better from the rookie tournament to Fan Fest yesterday. So it'll be a good opportunity to see where my game is at."
Wilcox started the Lightning's rookie tournament opener against Washington a little more than a week and was, admittedly, "jumpy." He gave up four goals in 30 minutes before giving way to Connor Ingram. Wilcox rebounded well, however, playing a full 60 minutes in the rookie tournament finale versus Florida and allowing only three goals while making several spectacular saves in the Bolts' 3-2 loss, their only defeat during the tournament.
"That was a game I thought I played well in," Wilcox said. "That was the structure I wanted to play. From what me, (Lightning goaltending coach) Franz (Jean) and (Syracuse Crunch goaltending coach) Dave (Alexander) were working on, that's what I implemented in the game, and that's what we were happy with. For the first game, I was excited, anxious. I got that one out of the way and moved on to the second one and played the game that I wanted to, and that's what we were happy to see. Yesterday (at Fan Fest) went well. I thought structurally it went even better than the rookie tournament. It was just a 20-minute game, but it's something good they can look at."
Like Bishop and Vasilevskiy, Gudlevskis saw time in international competition during the offseason, allowing him to stay sharp before the start of training camp. Gudlevskis was in net for Latvia's 8-1 victory over Austria on September 1 in qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Three days later, Gudlevskis also started against Germany but was pulled in the second period after allowing a second goal. Germany eventually defeated Latvia 3-2 to advance to the Olympics, eliminating Latvia.
"It's not like I've been without games for a long time," Gudlevskis said. "I feel good. It's all about just stopping the puck, and that's my main focus (Tuesday)."
Gudlevskis made 36 saves on 39 shots and had a 2.04 goals-against average during his 88:24 time on ice in Olympic qualifying.
Asked how he would describe his playing during that competition, Gudlevskis responded: "We didn't make the Olympic games, so can't be happy about that."
The Lightning haven't announced who will start in goal Tuesday against Carolina.
Both, likely, could see action.
Both will be ready.
"Every time when I play, I feel like I have an opportunity to prove myself," Gudlevskis said. "Nothing really changes."