Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Sports

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.

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