PITTSBURGH — Before relieving injured Ben Bishop on Friday, Lightning backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy got a pep talk about not trying to be Bishop.
Charles McTavish, an Ottawa-based goalie coach who has worked with Vasilevskiy every summer since 2011, spoke with the 21-year-old Russian on Friday afternoon, before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, about being himself. McTavish said Vasilevskiy has had a tendency this season to mimic some of Bishop's movements, which isn't surprising considering the respect he has for the Vezina Trophy finalist.
After Vasilevskiy delivered an impressively poised 25-save performance in a 3-1 win over the Penguins, he sent McTavish a telling text message:
"There's no second Bishop, there's no second (Capitals Brayden) Holtby — there's only one Andrei."
Said McTavish: "He felt like he found himself a little bit."
That could mean a lot for the Lightning, which might have to turn to Vasilevskiy to start Game 2 tonight. Though coach Jon Cooper on Sunday didn't rule out Bishop, who is day to day with a left leg injury after being carted off on a stretcher Friday, it appeared likely that Vasilevskiy would play tonight, and potentially beyond.
And Vasilevskiy believes he's ready for hockey's biggest stage.
"That's my dream right there," he said. "Bishop, it's a huge loss for us, but I will do everything while I can."
The Lightning has confidence in Vasilevskiy, having seen him rise to the occasion in relief of Bishop in last season's Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks. The 2012 first-round draft pick has played in just 46 career NHL games, but he has all the makings of a future No. 1, Cooper dubbing Bishop and Vasilevskiy a "1A and 1B" tandem.
"He's a five-tool goaltender. He has everything," said NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, a former Lightning goalie. "He has the right mental (makeup). You back that up with his size (6 feet 3) and athleticism, (and) a really technical foundation to his game.
"I remember when they first drafted him, I spoke to (Lightning goaltender coach Frantz Jean) about him. Frantz stood by the fact he was the best goalie prospect in the world that was available. It certainly looks that way."
Vasilevskiy stepped in for Bishop during Game 2 of last year's Cup final and started Game 4 in Chicago. The Lightning didn't win, but Vasilevskiy stopped 17 of 19 shots in a 2-1 loss. "He stepped in as big of a moment as you'll ever find," NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. "And he handled himself fantastically well."
Said Weekes: "I remember talking to him. He was unfazed. He was just cool, not jittery, not arrogant, (but) self-assured, like 'This is where I'm supposed to be. I'm ready to go.' "
Vasilevskiy earned that calmness in his vast international experience. He played two seasons in the Russia-based KHL and in three World Junior Championships. He will represent Russia in September's World Cup. Said McGuire: "He's been playing against men since he was 16, 17."
McTavish said Vasilevskiy looked like a man when they met when the goalie was 16. "Just his presence," McTavish said.
Vasilevskiy didn't speak English well, so McTavish used Google Translate on his phone to communicate. McTavish said Vasilevskiy, who went on to live with him, had an unrivaled work ethic.
"If he was on the ice at 11 a.m, he'd want to leave at 8," McTavish said. "If I wasn't ready to go at 8, he'd be sitting at my door looking at his watch, 'Hey it's 8:01.' And that's when he's 19. … To have that sort of focus and regimen is pretty impressive. It made me up my game. I wasn't used to that."
Jean compares Vasilevskiy's preparation to that of retired Lightning forward Marty St. Louis, whose workouts were legendary. "It's like he's been a pro for 10 years," Jean said. Take Friday. Vasilevskiy had an hour morning skate, played most of Game 1, then got on an exercise bike. "He's an addict," McGuire said. "He's the guy that wants to be in the rink all the time. It reminds me a lot of (Hall of Fame goaltender) Dominik Hasek in terms of how hard he pushes himself."
Besides having all the tools to be the guy, Vasilevskiy has the desire. "He's not afraid of it," McTavish said.
Neither are his teammates.
Said Bishop: "I know that he can go in there and do the job."