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  1. Lightning

Time for Vasilevskiy to prove he can be Lightning's No. 1 goalie

Andrei Vasilevskiy makes his first start after Ben Bishop is traded, helping the Lightning beat the Senators on Monday.
Andrei Vasilevskiy makes his first start after Ben Bishop is traded, helping the Lightning beat the Senators on Monday.
Published Feb. 28, 2017

TAMPA —The Andrei Vasilevskiy Era officially began Monday.

Vasilev­skiy, 22, was finally handed the Lightning No. 1 goalie gig for good, thanks to Sunday's trade of Ben Bishop to the Kings.

This has been the plan all along, the prized prospect in Vasilevskiy replacing the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist. And there are plenty of reasons the Lightning is confident in Vasilevskiy, from his unmatched work ethic to his impressive poise under pressure and obvious skill set.

And Monday was a great start, with Vasilevskiy's 39 saves helping lift the Lightning to a huge 5-1 home win over the Senators

But there's still a bit of unknown here. You're replacing Bishop, whom coach Jon Cooper said might be among the most important players in franchise history, with a young goalie who has yet to prove he can handle the No. 1 position.

Isn't this a leap of faith?

"It's more than a leap of faith," GM Steve Yzerman said. "Time will tell, but I believe he has all the tools to be an excellent starting goaltender for a long time. Look at all the top goalies in the league today and look back to the start of their career. There are some ups and downs. It's the hardest position to play. I believe he has the mental makeup and character, the desire, the fortitude to ride those downs out."

Vasilevskiy has had his share of dips this season, entering Monday's game with one win in his previous 12 starts (12-13-5, 2.81 goals-against average overall). Sure, Vasilevskiy has dazzled on the biggest stage, including last season's Eastern Conference final and the 2015 Stanley Cup final.

But it's a whole different dynamic being "the guy" over 60 starts in a regular season. Vasilevskiy got a taste at midseason, spelling the injured Bishop for nine straight games. Vasilevskiy went 3-5-1 with a 3.78 goals-against average and an .876 save percentage. In fairness, the Lightning didn't play well in front of him.

But Vasilevskiy admitted it was a tough adjustment, whether it was learning physically how to manage his between-games workouts to mentally moving on from bad starts.

"It's super different," said former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, who has made the transition. "It takes time, just the weight of the expectations, the weight of the world on your shoulders. Everyone talks about how hard it is to find young goalies that can play in this league. But not everyone is really patient to grow through their warts. Not every goalie is going to come up and be a rock star right away."

The Lightning has taken its time with Vasilevskiy, a first-round pick in 2012. He has spent parts of three seasons in the NHL, learning from his mentor Bishop. Vasilevskiy has gotten a taste of the postseason, his teammates loving him.

"We as players have a tremendous amount of belief and trust in him and his abilities," defenseman Anton Stralman said.

Lightning defensemen are used to playing a different style with Vasilevskiy, who is not nearly as good as Bishop at puckhandling. Fox Sports Sun analyst Bobby "The Chief" Taylor said Bishop is the best he has ever seen at that skill, which thwarts opponents' forecheck and fuels Tampa Bay's rush.

Taylor said Vasilevskiy still gives up the "weird" goals, something he will improve on with experience. But Vasilevskiy has all the intangibles of a No. 1, specifically his determination.

"Everybody likes to be the best, but he's going to put in the time to be the best," Taylor said. "That's a huge, huge advantage for him because he wants to be the guy."

And now Vasilevskiy has his chance. Yzerman said they expect Vasilevskiy to get the lion's share of starts in the final 21 games but added this is a "performance-based league." So recently-acquired veteran Peter Budaj can push Vasilevskiy for games.

But Vasilevskiy has a lot of believers, including Bishop.

" 'Vasy' has got all the potential to be a great goaltender in this league," Bishop said Monday in a phone interview. "Now it's just about going out there and doing it. There are going to be some bumps and bruises along the way, but I think he's capable. It's not going to be all roses along the way, but he's definitely got the potential to be successful."

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