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Lightning decided on Vasilevskiy before playoffs

by Corey Masisak

BRANDON, Fla. -- Were it not for a bold move in early February, the Tampa Bay Lightning might have turned to a different Russian goaltender in Games 2 and 4 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, now thrust into the heart of the biggest story of the Final, spent much of the 2014-15 season as the No. 3 goaltender on Tampa Bay's depth chart. Veteran Evgeni Nabokov, 39, had been signed to a one-year contract in July to back up Ben Bishop and to give Vasilevskiy more time to develop with Syracuse in the American Hockey League.

Nabokov struggled in limited duty, and when the calendar turned to February the Lightning decided Vasilevskiy's time had arrived. Tampa Bay waived Nabokov and bumped Vasilevskiy, born 19 years to the day after the 39-year-old veteran, up the depth chart.

"In training camp was the first time I saw [Vasilevskiy] and he was really good," Tampa Bay defenseman Jason Garrison said. "That was always one thing about this team; the depth has been unbelievable. Obviously management had complete confidence in him as well."

Teams typically are loathe to have a young goaltender in the backup role. The Lightning decided the move would work on two fronts: Vasilevskiy would be an upgrade over Nabokov (he was) and it would allow coach Jon Cooper to rest Bishop more (he did, as Vasilevskiy played in more games from Feb. 1 until the end of the season than Nabokov did from the start of the season until he was waived).

The Lightning also have another young goalie prospect, Kristers Gudlevskis, who was able to play more for Syracuse after the move. At the time it was an intriguing footnote during a long season. But when Bishop left Game 2 early, could not play in Game 4 and remains questionable for Game 5 Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks because of an undisclosed injury, the decision to promote Vasilevskiy took on far more importance.

"That was a while ago," Lightning forward Brian Boyle said. "I remember [Nabokov] was a great teammate, a great guy. Those aren't decisions that we make. We have faith in our staff and we know they will make us the best team we can be.

"For [Vasilevskiy], he's earned it. He's been a great pro for a kid who is 20. It is impressive to see his maturity level and commitment to the game."

Bishop did not practice Friday, something Cooper said became part of the plan when he was held out of Game 4 on Wednesday. He took the morning skate Saturday, but Cooper has yet to make a decision for Game 5 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

If Bishop can't go, the Lightning will stick with their 20-year-old phenom who became the fourth-youngest goaltender to win a Stanley Cup Final game when he made five saves in the final 7:41 of Game 2. The Cup Final typically is not a place for young goaltenders because teams traditionally have avoided carrying them as backups.

Vasilevskiy's first start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs got off to a slow start because the Blackhawks put two shots on goal in the first period of Game 4. He finished with 17 saves in a 2-1 loss.

"I hope if I will play next game I'll be much better than [Game 4]," Vasilevskiy said. "I think I'll have more confidence. I got some experience right now in Stanley Cup Final. That's it. In my head right now, mentally, I got more power right now. When you play, you get good feeling, more fun. I think next game if I will play I will feel much better."

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22

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