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Rosen: Andrei Vasilevskiy justifies Lightning confidence in him

by Dan Rosen / Tampa Bay Lightning

CHICAGO -- Word started to spread through the Tampa Bay Lightning on the way to United Center a few hours before puck drop.

On the team bus, in the dressing room, from coaches to players, everyone eventually found out the hard truth, that No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop would not be even dressing for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, that 20-year-old rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy would be starting instead.

The reaction was pretty much the same from everyone. It was telling.

"There's not much thinking that goes on other than [Bishop] has been huge for us all year and you feel bad for him that he can't be a part of this," center Brian Boyle said. "When it comes to confidence in our goaltending, it's there for both guys."

That confidence, which the Lightning have emphatically stressed since before Game 3, when there were questions about Bishop's availability, is validated now after Vasilevskiy made 17 saves on 19 shots in a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday at United Center.

That validation is huge now, because Chicago's win made this Stanley Cup Final a best-of-3, down from a best-of-7, and the only guarantee Lightning coach Jon Cooper could make about his goaltending is that Bishop will play again in this series. He's just not sure when.

No offense to Bishop, but after watching Vasilevskiy step onto the biggest stage in hockey and perform with the poise and control that he showed in Game 4, it doesn't seem to be that big of a deal anymore who plays.

It never was to the Lightning. They kept trying to tell everyone that, basing it on Vasilevskiy's work ethic and his previous big-game experience in the KHL and at the World Junior Championship. It was still hard to believe them. It isn't anymore.

"That's all you can ask for in a goalie being put in that situation," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He stepped up, made some big saves, and we had a chance."

Vasilevskiy, the youngest goalie to start a Cup Final game since Patrick Roy in 1986, was beaten by Jonathan Toews' shot from the slot that went in off his own skate at 6:40 of the second period, and by Brandon Saad's backhand through his five-hole at 6:22 of the third.

The first goal was unlucky. Arguably, the second one was too, because Vasilevskiy timed his poke check just right to knock the puck off of Saad's stick only to see the puck carry right back to Saad's backhand. The bang-bang play opened him up a bit, and Saad found the hole.

Sure he was aided by the Blackhawks hitting the post or crossbar three times. Two of those came in the second period, once on a breakaway by Patrick Sharp. He also faced all of two shots in the first period because the Lightning were dominant with the puck.

But every goalie catches breaks. Every goalie needs some luck. Most every goalie will lose when his team scores only one goal. Not every goalie is making his 14th career start in a road game in the Stanley Cup Final.

"He showed at the pinnacle of the sport that he can play," Cooper said. "That's a pretty big achievement for a 20-year-old."

It's bigger for the Lightning because of the uncertainty surrounding Bishop, who was officially listed by Tampa Bay prior to Game 4 as being day-to-day with an undisclosed injury.

Cooper said he had a pretty good idea of what was happening in the afternoon even though Bishop participated in the morning skate and was the first goalie off the ice, typically an indication that he would be the starter.

Bishop spoke to the media in the morning, saying nothing much at all. But then he sat in his stall inside the dressing room re-lacing his skates as if he were preparing them for when he arrived at the rink. They sat unused.

Cooper said he got to United Center and confirmed Bishop's status. Word got back to everyone fairly quickly, with assistant coaches telling guys wherever they could find them.

Several players said they weren't surprised when they learned the news.

They saw the way Bishop battled his way through Game 3, making 36 saves in a 3-2 win. They knew something was bothering him, even if they insisted after Game 3 that he didn't look hurt. They figured there was the possibility of a goalie change for Game 4.

"[Bishop] is a warrior and battled through the other game the other night," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "I wasn't surprised, no, and frankly I didn't really care who was in the net."

Neither did Boyle. Or Stamkos. Or defenseman Jason Garrison. Or anybody who uttered a word about Vasilevskiy to the media following the game.

If that doesn't speak to the confidence they have in him, what does?

"He's prepared himself remarkably well throughout the year for whenever he got a start," Boyle said. "He has worked extremely hard throughout long stretches when he hasn't played, so it doesn't surprise me. When you're that prepared you shouldn't be nervous. He was excellent."

It's conceivable that Bishop uses the two days off between games to get healthy, or at least healthy enough to play Game 5 on Saturday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). If he does and he can, there's no doubt his teammates will have his back and be confident in him.

If it's Vasilevskiy, the feeling will be the same.

It has been all along. The Lightning have been trying to convince everybody of that. They've been effusive in their praise and confidence in Vasilevskiy. But getting validation in how secure they should be with a 20-year-old in net in the biggest games of the season certainly helps too.

"You put the kid on the stage, he's going to perform," Cooper said. "Pretty comforting for a coach knowing that you got those two guys back there in net for you."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl

Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer

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