Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Jones: The goalie who could make us forget Ben Bishop

TAMPA — Former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop showed up at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.

So how’s the big guy doing?

Don’t know. Don’t care.

Sorry, that’s wasn’t meant to be mean. Bishop is a great goalie, a good guy and a class act. He helped turn the Lightning into the winning organization it is today.

But these days, it’s all about the goalie the Lightning kept. Not the one it traded.

Last season the Lightning had a difficult choice to make: Keep the best goalie it has ever had or put all its hopes into a kid who had never been a No. 1 NHL goalie before.

The Lightning kept the kid: Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Looks like it made the right call.

Vasilevskiy has been sensational this season. Talk all you want about the terrific play of Nikita Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos, but the Lightning has the best record in the league because of the 23-year-old Russian goalie. And he’s the biggest reason the Lightning is already the Stanley Cup favorite.

This should come as no surprise. We’ve been hearing for a few years how Vasilevskiy is the best goalie prospect to come along since maybe Martin Brodeur. His scouting reports were off the charts. "Can’t miss,’’ they said. "Surefire.’’

Taken by the Lightning in the first round of the 2012 draft, he has lived up to every accolade.

"Any time you’re a goaltender drafted in the first round, the expectation is that you’re going to be a No. 1 goalie,’’ Stamkos said. "I think he has to deal with those expectations since he was drafted. And he’s just gotten better and better.’’

We’ve seen flashes that Vasilevskiy was going to be terrific as far back as his rookie season.

As a 20-year-old, he was called upon during the 2015 Stanley Cup final when Bishop got hurt and won Game 2 against the Blackhawks. When Bishop was injured minutes into the 2016 Eastern Conference final, he played well enough to take the eventual-champion Penguins to seven games.

"Everything has been groomed for him to take this step,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "At some point, he has to take the step. The question is, how quick is the success going to come?’’

The answer appears to be: right away.

But still, at some point, the Lightning had to take a leap of faith. It had to decide that it was going to hand the No. 1 goalie job to a kid who had never been a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

How did it know when to do it? Finding that magic moment is hard.

For Cooper, it was last season when Bishop got hurt. Vasilevskiy started 10 games and went 3-6-1 in what he called the most terrible stretch of his career.

"That was, for me, (Vasilevskiy’s) big test,’’ Cooper said. "He struggled early. And then as he got going, as we got to the end of that stretch, he was really good.’’

That’s when Cooper knew it was a matter of time. It finally happened last season when Bishop was traded to Los Angeles near the trade deadline. That’s when Vasilevskiy took off.

"I feel the same as I did the last 20 games of last season,’’ Vasilevskiy said. "I’m playing pretty good, but it’s just the first 18 or however many games it is. It’s a long season.’’

And here’s the thing: Vasilevskiy might not necessarily put up crazy numbers. He entered Wednesday seventh in the NHL in goals-against average. But he was first in the only stat that really matters: wins. It’s not about how many saves he makes, but when he makes them. He seems to make the biggest saves at the most crucial times. That’s how you win games.

"He is just happy to win,’’ Stamkos said. "He’s a big reason why we’re sitting where we are now. It has been fun to see.’’

Know what else is fun to watch? Vasilevskiy’s post-practice routine of putting away his pads just so. He studies them and studies them, and then moves them maybe a fraction of an inch one way or the other so it’s all just right.

And though he still occasionally feels awkward about his English — which is good enough for him to not feel awkward about — he has become more open around his teammates.

"He has come out of his shell a little bit now, gotten more comfortable, which is fun to see,’’ Stamkos said. "But whatever he is doing, we don’t care.’’

What he is doing? He is replacing Bishop as the Lightning’s No. 1 goalie.

And just maybe, someday, as the greatest goalie in franchise history.

Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 2

Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 2

The Rays have talked about a lot of things but not done much so far at the winter meetings, but that could change today.They have offers on the table for closer Alex Colome, and some of the interested teams – such as the Cardinals and Rockies &...
Updated: 4 hours ago

Girls soccer: Land O’Lakes 5, River Ridge 1

LAND O'LAKES – They might not have been ready to play at the very start, but Land O'Lakes came around. Sydney Nasello scored two goals as the Gators (8-2) took over first place in Class 3A, District 8 with a 5-1 defeat of visiting Riv...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Tyre McCants, USF’s brawny bruiser of a receiver

Tyre McCants, USF’s brawny bruiser of a receiver

TAMPA — Having spent 11 games watching Tyre McCants in the flesh — all 236 pounds of it — USF coach Charlie Strong seems convinced his team’s leading receiver down the stretch could be someone’s leading rusher down the road."I think he can do a whole...
Published: 12/12/17
Explosives? On 40-yard plays, Bucs among NFL’s worst

Explosives? On 40-yard plays, Bucs among NFL’s worst

Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has key statistics that he puts great value in, finding a close correlation between success in those areas and success on the scoreboard. Winning the takeaway battle is always first among those priorities, but he and his staff...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Eagles confirm QB Wentz is done for season

Eagles confirm QB Wentz is done for season

PHILADELPHIA — Carson Wentz got the Eagles this far. Now, it’s up to Nick Foles to deliver Philadelphia its first Super Bowl title. Wentz has a torn left ACL and will miss the rest of the season and playoffs, forcing the NFC East champions to turn to...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Lions-Buccaneers Turning Point, Week 14: A coach's future hangs in the balance

Lions-Buccaneers Turning Point, Week 14: A coach's future hangs in the balance

TAMPA — The season started in August with “Hard Knocks,” packed bleachers at training camp and cheers for coach Dirk Koetter.It ended Sunday with a 24-21 loss to the Lions, a lot of empty seats and chants of “We want Gruden ba...
Updated: 10 hours ago

Tampa Bay Rays make a small deal, acquire INF Joey Wendle

While continuing discussions on bigger topics, the Rays made a small deal Monday, acquiring INF Joey Wendle from the A's for a player to be named later or cash.Wendle, 27, spent part of the last two seasons in the majors, hitting .266 over 36 games. ...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 1

Live from Disney: Winter meetings update, day 1

UPDATE, 6:14: The Rays continued talks with no major moves seemingly close, but did make a small deal, acquiring INF Joey Wendle from the A's. Wendle, 27, has spent parts of the last two seasons in the majors, hitting .266 in 36 games. He is a lefty ...
Updated: 10 hours ago

High school scoreboard for Dec. 11

Monday’s scoreboardGirls soccerDixie Hollins 4, Boca Ciega 0Palm Harbor U. 2, Countryside 2Osceola 7, Northeast 0Largo 1, Seminole 0Boys soccerIndian Rocks Chr. 3, Northside Chr. 1Palm Harbor U. 4, Countryside 1...
Updated: 10 hours ago
NBA-worst Bulls romp past shorthanded Celtics

NBA-worst Bulls romp past shorthanded Celtics

CHICAGO — Nikola Mirotic scored 24, Bobby Portis added a career-high 23 and the Bulls blew out Boston 108-85 on Monday night with Celtics star Kyrie Irving sidelined by a bruised left quadriceps.Owners of the NBA’s worst record, the Bulls built an 18...
Updated: 11 hours ago