BRANDON, FLA. – The Tampa Bay Lightning conducted practice as usual Friday but without their starting goalie, Ben Bishop. Their highly skilled forwards launched shots at Andrei Vasilevskiy, Bishop's backup, and, if a puck went in, the forwards raised their arms, howled and celebrated.
As practice wore on, though, and the shots kept going in, the celebrations were toned down.The Lightning did not seem to want to shake his confidence.
With Bishop dealing with an undisclosed injury, Vasilevskiy started and lost Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, who tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2. After practice, the Lightning insisted they were still unsure which goalie would start Game 5 on Saturday at Amalie Arena. Lightning coach Jon Cooper indicated that he would not know until the morning skate whether Bishop would play.
"We're going to play the guy that gives us the best chance to win the game, whoever that guy is," Cooper said. "Is that gauged on a percentage basis of how Bish is healthy? I don't know if I can say that. If Ben Bishop can play a game, he's playing."
Vasilevskiy, a Russian who's still a rookie to intense media glare, said he had dreamed about playing in games of this magnitude. When asked, he gave his height, in centimeters (192 or 193, about 6-foot-3), presumably so he could be compared with Bishop, who at 6-7 is the tallest goalie in the league. Vasilevskiy paused when asked which goalies he admired growing up. Nobody, he said at first.
"I like how Bish plays," he added, drawing laughter. "Seriously. He's unbelievable."
Vasilevskiy's teammates and coaches know him for his humility and his work ethic — qualities they like seeing in a young backup goalie. They noticed his riding the stationary bike or working with Frantz Jean, the goalie coach, after practice.
"He's got a mental maturity and a hockey maturity," Jean said. "For a 20-year-old, he picks up details and nuances about players, about certain plays teams might run."
Vasilevskiy may not be as experienced as Bishop, or as deft a puck handler, but he is known more among his teammates for his elaborate stretching routines. Bishop said of Vasilevskiy a few weeks ago, "He's definitely more flexible than me." Vasilevskiy does yoga poses, contorting his body into pretzel-like shapes. His teammates marvel that he can do a full split, his thighs flat to the floor. He views it as a way to prepare his body to make acrobatic saves, the type of saves that Bishop, at his size, might not be able to make, even when he is fully healthy.
"If you can do a split on the ground," Vasilevskiy said, "you can in the game."
The Lightning showed confidence in him when Bishop was injured because they had seen the splits, the work behind the scenes.
"Just give us a chance," Jean told Vasilevskiy before Game 4, and he did. He held the Blackhawks to two goals, and the Lightning's highly skilled forwards managed only one.
"The last two days I've had more fun than all season," Vasilevskiy said, grinning wide. Then, as if to remove all doubt, he said in clear English, "I'm very excited."