TAMPA, Fla. – This is exactly what we signed up for with this Stanley Cup final. Minus the part about Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop skating off the ice and heading down the tunnel twice in the third period and leaving an unknown Russian to get his first postseason victory.
More on that in a minute.
The Lightning got things even at a win apiece with Saturday’s 4-3 thriller over the Chicago Blackhawks in Amalie Arena. Defenseman Jason Garrison got the winning goal with 11:11 left, with a shot that deflected off the stick of Hawks forward Andrew Desjardins and past Corey Crawford.
It was a game that had so much. There was the return of the Tampa Triplets, with goals from both Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson. There were key coaching strategies, with Chicago’s Joel Quenneville’s making the correct choice to break up the ineffective tandem of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to start the third period and Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper getting some good moments by inserting rookie Jonathan Drouin.
It also had controversy, with a tying goal early in the third from Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, on a sick Toews feed, sure looking like it could have been goalie interference on Marian Hossa.
After two days off, the teams entertained us wildly. There were 97 shot attempts. You almost wished for overtime.
“It’s almost like Game One again, almost like a new beginning to the series,” Toews had said earlier in the day. “Beyond that, energy-wise, I think both teams kind of tested the waters a little bit and kind of know what to expect. You’ll probably see a better game tonight.”
Prescient words indeed. There was no holding back in this one. Up and down. Pass and dangle and shoot.
Tweeted Chicago Sun-Times Blackhawks writer Mark Lazerus: “This is some freewheeling, loosey-goosey, pizza-delivering, rebound-chasing hockey. The coaches probably hate it. I love it.”
Everyone in the building not wearing red certainly did. We’ll see if the deep dish in Chicago can deliver as well the next two games.
But when we get to the United Center, who will be in the Tampa Bay net? Bishop’s sudden departures left 20-year-old Andre Vasilevskiy to take over and he had to make five saves to claim his first postseason win.
There was plenty of confusion afterward. Bishop was unavailable for comment. Coach Jon Cooper pointedly told reporters he wasn’t answering any inquiries about what happened with Bishop but added he was thrilled for Vasilevskiy.
“I know we have two unbelievably capable goaltenders,” Cooper said. “When ‘Bish’ had to leave, there wasn’t an ounce of stress on anybody on our bench, including myself. The kid proved it when he went in. He was great.”
Vasilevskiy, 20, was Tampa Bay’s No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft and has already spent time in the KHL. He went 7-5-1 in 16 games during the season, posting nice numbers (2.36 goals-against average, .918 save percentage). He got his first NHL shutout here March 3 against the Sabres, a 3-0 win in the first game after Buffalo’s trade deadline purge.
When Bishop first burst off the ice, went down the tunnel and came back a couple of minutes later, it left everyone to think he was having an issue any of us can have at a bad time. Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, no stranger to such incidents, even tweeted as much during the game. Complete with an emoji of a toilet.
“No one really knew what was going on,” said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. “We were kind of listening to the announcements of who was in net for our team a couple times.”
“We have a lot of belief in ‘Vasy’ and what he can do when he’s on the ice,” said Tampa defenseman Anton Stralman. “So it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think we let us frustrate us or worry about it at all. We kept moving about our business and we were so focused on winning the game.”
Vasilevskiy speaks very broken English and did a brief session with reporters, politely asking television cameras to leave.
“I just feel myself happy. That’s it,” was how Vasilevskiy pegged his emotions. “Our arena was a little wild and it was just happy.”
He said he wasn’t nervous after facing the first couple of Chicago shots. When I asked him what he thought when he saw Bishop coming to the bench, he said simply, “I didn’t know, didn’t think nothing.”
Fair enough. Plenty of other people were thinking for him.
“It’s impressive to come into a situation like that, no question,” said Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan. “I don’t know if I could do that at his age. It’s good to see.”
Vasilevskiy became the first goalie to win a Cup final game in relief since Pittsburgh’s Frank Pietrangelo in 1991. And according to Elias Sports, he’s the first goalie to get his initial postseason win in the final since 1928.
Just like Game One, the Lightning scored first and had a lead into the third period. They couldn’t strike in the opener but found a way in this one. When Chicago scored twice in less than two minutes early in the second period, the Lightning were undaunted. Same when Seabrook got his goal, on a play that would surely prompt a replay review for goalie interference under next season’s proposed coach’s challenge system.
“We had pushback tonight,” Cooper said. “I think we learned from that. We’ve played pretty well in these two games, and it’s 1-1, and I guess it could easily be 2-0 both ways. I guess 1-1 is fair.”
Sure is. Memo to the Hawks and Lightning: Five more just like this one, please.