Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy gets bittersweet 'dream come true'

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) rests during a break in play during the second period of Wednesday???‚??„?s (3/1/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) rests during a break in play during the second period of Wednesday???‚??„?s (3/1/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Published March 5, 2017

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Andrei Vasilevskiy is naturally thrilled after getting his long-awaited chance to be the Lightning's No. 1 goalie.

"A dream come true," Vasilevskiy said.

It's bittersweet, however. For Vasilevskiy, 22, to step into the starting role, he had to watch his mentor, his "old brother," Ben Bishop, traded to the Kings last week.

Replacing a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist isn't easy. And Vasilevskiy made it clear: Like Bishop before him, he's ready to earn the job.

"I don't want to say, 'Bish is gone, I'm 100 percent No. 1,' " Vasilevskiy said. "I'm not going to (mess) around. I will work even more and show everybody that I deserve to be here and deserve to be the starting goalie."

That's not Vasilevskiy being cocky. It's the same determination he has shown since the Lightning drafted him in the first round in 2012, believing he could be its future.

Tampa Bay has put a lot of trust in Vasilevskiy, including giving him a three-year extension in July worth $3.5 million annually. And Vasilevskiy wants to reward that faith. He's off to an impressive start in the No. 1 role, winning his first three starts after Saturday's 2-1 shootout victory in Buffalo.

"His heart is in the right place," Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said. "He works at his craft, and he's dedicated to be the best he can be. Usually when guys do that, they tend to be successful."

There will be growing pains. But Vasilevskiy believes he's more prepared for the role after going through an admittedly trying trial run at midseason when Bishop was hurt. Vasilevskiy's numbers weren't good in an unaccustomed role: 3-5-1 with a 3.78 goals-against average in nine starts. It didn't help that Tampa Bay played poorly in front of him. Vasilevskiy lost his confidence, something that's difficult to get back.

"It was the most terrible stretch of my life," Vasilevskiy said.

But he said he's mentally stronger because of it.

"I think he was a little bit frustrated by that and frustrated he wasn't able to be the difference maker in some games," Jean said. "But that's part of the learning process, part of the experience. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we always have to remember that usually when a goaltender is successful, the team is successful and playing well.

"Your goalie might save you a couple games here and there when you're really struggling as a team. But it's very rare that he can do it for a month. It's a team effort."

With Bishop's trade, Vasilevskiy lost part of what he called his goalie team. Bishop had been with him since Vasilevskiy entered the NHL in 2014-15. Bishop offered tips, helping Vasilevskiy prepare for the mental and physical grind.

"When I first got here, I was looking at him like, 'This guy is the best goalie in the NHL,' " Vasilevskiy said. "I told him he's like my old brother, old teacher. I'm really thankful for him. He's a nice guy and unbelievable goalie. He'll stay in my heart forever."

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Vasilevskiy wants to bring the Lightning a Stanley Cup, having gotten a taste of the playoffs during deep runs each of the past two seasons. He has his work cut out for him. Tampa Bay entered Saturday five points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. That might not be a bad thing for Vasilevskiy, however, said NBSCN analyst Brian Boucher, a former NHL goalie.

"It's not like he's been handed this great team and if you falter it's 'Oh my goodness,' " Boucher said. "I think the pressure is off this club a little bit because of the season they have. It might be a good situation for him to come in and see if he can be that guy to lead the charge to get them into the playoffs. If I'm him, I'm relishing the opportunity."

Vasilevskiy certainly is.

Joe Smith can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.