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Vasilevskiy adjusts to NHL, role as Lightning backup

by Corey Long

TAMPA -- In many ways Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is a victim of his own success.

The 20-year-old, a prospect from Tyumen, Russia, was expected to spend this season with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League and hopefully lead the team to Calder Cup.

When he was called up in December to play for an injured Ben Bishop, he went 3-1-0 with a 45-save effort against the New York Islanders in the lone loss.

If members of the Lightning organization expected Vasilevskiy, the 19th pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, to have a bit of a setback when he returned to Syracuse, they were pleasantly surprised to see his numbers improve over the next month.

Andrei Vasilevskiy
Andrei Vasilevskiy
Goalie - TBL
RECORD: 4-1-1
GAA: 2.09 | SVP: .929
"He's proving he can get it done at any level," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He's been a top performing goalie wherever he's been and he's showing it at the NHL level too."

Although it's a small sample size, Vasilevskiy's 2.09 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in seven games (six starts) is enough for Lightning management to feel like they made the right decision bringing him up to be the full-time backup to Bishop on Feb. 1.

The move marked the end for veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who was waived two weeks ago and traded to the San Jose Sharks on Monday. The 39-year-old is expected to announce his retirement Wednesday.

"Once we made the decision to give [Vasilevskiy] more NHL games we didn't feel it was right to keep Evgeni here if he wasn't going to play," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "It wasn't right for him or the team."

Now the question becomes how the Lightning will balance the starts between Bishop and Vasilevskiy to keep both healthy and ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Vasilevskiy's most recent start came Tuesday in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators. He had 26 saves in the game, including a highlight-reel toe save against Mike Ribeiro.

In his previous start, a 5-3 win against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 5, Vasilevskiy made 33 saves and set the tone for a third-period comeback, according to Cooper.

"He showed a lot of maturity when they were bringing a lot of pressure his way," Cooper said. "Without him we don't have the chance to come back and win that game."

He was expected to start this past Sunday against Anaheim but was called into action when Bishop was pulled Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings after giving up three goals in the first period. Vasilevskiy saved 19 of 20 shots, but the Lightning lost 4-2.

"I thought he came in and did really well, especially considering we were in a 3-0 hole," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He made some big saves and that helped us get some momentum going."

Despite his desire to play, Vasilevskiy understands his new role will require learning from observation as much as game minutes. And although the role of being a backup is still a little new to someone who's played starter's minutes for much of his early career, he's planning on making the most of it.


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"I just want to be prepared when it's my turn to play," Vasilevskiy said. "When I'm not playing I'm going to learn and try to help the team out however I can."

While Vasilevskiy's game schedule is still being worked out, Cooper is clear to say that he wasn't brought up without a plan. After Bishop sustained a dislocated elbow and missed a four-game defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference First Round last season, the overall health of the team is going to be a factor as the final weeks of the regular season approach.

Cooper said increasing Vasilevskiy's experience in the NHL will be important down the stretch.

"We didn't bring him up here to sit; if that was the case we would have left him in Syracuse," Cooper said. "Ben Bishop is our starting goaltender, but we need to get Vasilevskiy NHL games. We think he's ready for it. He's proven he's ready for it. But to be able to give [Bishop] some more games off so we can stay fresh is good."

With the additional games off Bishop also has a chance to observe Vasilevskiy and so far he's been impressed with what he's seen.

"He definitely doesn't play like he's 20 years old," Bishop said. "He shows a lot of maturity out there and he appears comfortable playing at this level."

Vasilevskiy knows there's much for him to learn. While his experience as part of a gold medal-winning group with the Russian National Team at the IIHF World Championship has him fully aware of high-pressure situations, it's nothing like the NHL postseason.

"It's a big difference in speed and a lot of traffic in front of the goal," Vasilevskiy said. "Everything moves fast and will be faster in the playoffs. I have to be prepared for anything when it's my time to play."

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