When he was first thrown into the spotlight as a 20-year-old during the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks last June, Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy knew his limitations.
After carving his way through a throng of reporters following practice the morning after he’d made his Stanley Cup Final debut in a Game 4 loss, Vasileskiy turned back to the crowd and made one request:
“No cameras please.’’
Refusing to lean on an interpreter but aware of the possibility that his limited grasp of the English language might not play well on TV, Vasilevskiy was determined not to embarrass himself.
He needn’t have worried. Vasilevskiy handled the interview with aplomb, charming reporters with his confidence and wit, at one point offering up his weight in centimeters instead of feet and inches.
As it turns out, the interview was an extension of Vasilevskiy’s play on the ice, where the native of Tyumen, Russia clearly knows his strengths and weaknesses and plays well beyond his years.
Good thing, too, because the Lightning appear to be back in the same situation they were on a few occasions last year, when Vasilevskiy had to step in for an injured Ben Bishop.
Bishop went down with a lower left leg injury early in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday night, but Vasilevskiy eased the pain by backstopping Tampa Bay’s 3-1 victory over the Penguins.
No one inside the Lightning dressing room was surprised. Though he produced a modest 11-10 record in the 24 games he played this year, Vasilevskiy has earned the confidence of his coaches and teammates.
“It’s tough when you’re a backup goalie and you never know when you’re going to get your chance, but he was obviously ready,’’ said Lightning winger Alex Killorn, who kicked off the scoring for Tampa Bay on Friday with a late first-period goal. “Whenever you have a goalie that can come in, a backup that you have a lot of confidence in, it helps the team for sure.’’
It’s Vasilevskiy’s work ethic that his teammates and coaches most admire. Coach Jon Cooper apologized for citing an old cliché, but added he was just being honest when he said Vasilevskiy was regularly the first player to arrive at the rink each day and the last to leave.
“If there’s one thing that Vasilevskiy will never be knocked for, it’s his preparation and work ethic,’’ Cooper said. “That’s in his DNA. That’s why I don’t think there was one guy on our bench who was sitting there (after he went in) and thinking ‘Oh, we’re nervous because Vasilevskiy’s going in.’ We’ve kind of run with this tandem all year.’’
One reason the Lightning can continue to have confidence in Vasilevskiy moving forward is because the goalie believes he’s at his best when he’s playing regularly. He admits he can struggle sometimes when he doesn’t get regular work. That trait didn’t show on Friday, though.
Vasilevskiy gave up only one goal, stopping 25 shots overall through two-plus periods, and he controlled the puck well, allowing only a handful of benign rebounds. Of course, that’s what the Lightning have come to expect from Vasilevskiy. And it showed on Friday.
Confident that their net was still secure with Vasilevskiy protecting it, the Lightning became more aggressive after Bishop first left the game, outshooting the Penguins 11-2 for a stretch that carried over well into the second period.
“That had to be big for (Vasilevkiy) because here he is and he’s got to jump into the lion’s den and yet he did have to face anything,’’ Cooper said. “So he got to get a feel for the game and what was going on and not have to be bombarded with shots.’’
Not that Vasilevskiy couldn’t have handled such a bombardment. In 40 NHL games so far, he’s produced a 2.60 goals against average, a .913 save percentage and two shutouts. And it’s not like he hasn’t performed at a high level on hockey’s biggest stage before.
Just as he did on Friday, Vasilevskiy won a game in relief of Bishop during the Stanley Cup Final last year and after Friday’s outing he now has a rather sterling 2.21 playoff goals against and .923 save percentage across seven games.
“He’s a rock,’’ Cooper concluded.