Lightning need Big Ben Bishop for big Stanley Cup Final games

TAMPA, Fla. — Andrei Vasilevskiy’s time to excel as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top goaltender will come.

But it shouldn’t be now.

The young Russian’s moment to star in the most pivotal of situations will arrive.

But it shouldn’t be Saturday in Game 5 of a tied Stanley Cup Final against the scrappy and savvy Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena.

Why stop there? It shouldn’t be Monday in Game 6 at the United Center. It shouldn’t be Wednesday in Game 7 at Amalie Arena, if this wildly entertaining and exhilarating series goes the distance.

This is a big moment. It calls for Big Ben Bishop in net, whether he’s fully healthy or not.

All this is no knock on Vasilevskiy, who was given the huge task at age 20 of starting a Game 4 loss to the Blackhawks on Wednesday at the United Center. The move wasn’t so far-fetched if Bishop’s mystery injury indeed required extra time to heal with the intent of starting him in Game 5. As much as the Lightning would have liked to place a 3-1 stranglehold on the series, they earned in Game 3 what they should have desired before beginning their Chicago trip. Then, they gained at least a split of the two contests in the Windy City.

Still, the sight of Vasilevskiy becoming the youngest goaltender to start a Stanley Cup Final game since 20-year-old Patrick Roy in 1986 was like seeing a gifted junior-high math whiz sitting in the front row of an advanced college statistics course. It was a bit jarring. It doesn’t feel like the way to win a title with this series reduced to a best-of-three scenario.

Yes, Vasilevskiy fared well by making 17 saves on 19 shots. Yes, it’s true when Lightning coaches say Vasilevskiy placed them in a position to win.

But why jump off the saddle of the thoroughbred who has carried you here? Why make such a drastic change in strategy, for Game 5 or anytime later, with the finish line in sight?

That’s why all talk about how the Lightning should stick with Vasilevskiy over even a hobbled Bishop throughout the rest of the Stanley Cup Final is misguided. This goes beyond the experience difference between the two, which is considerable with Bishop’s 170 regular-season games played compared to Vasilevskiy’s 16.

Just listen to defenseman Matt Carle, when asked Thursday about the largest factor missing when Bishop is out.

"His ability to play the puck," Carle said. "As an opposing team, when you know you’re playing against a goalie that can handle the puck like Bish, it changes the way you play. You have to be conscious of dumping pucks in and keeping it away from the goaltender. Vasy, there might be a bit of a communication factor there. Bish talks a lot, speaks English very well. Vasy is a little bit more quiet. A lot of us on D don’t understand Russian except for (Nikita Nesterov). As far as stopping the puck, he’s probably one of the hardest working guys on our team. You see him every day in practice, in the gym. He’s second to none on our team as far as work ethic goes."

Don’t take any of that as a slight to Vasilevskiy. Carle’s words are honest. His assessment holds weight.

Still, in hearing players and coaches speak about the young goaltender, it’s clear Vasilevskiy has the respect of his peers and superiors. He has put in the work. He has walked the right path in his development. He never would have started Game 4 without gaining support from coach Jon Cooper and others.

"Mentally, we didn’t change one bit," Lightning winger Ryan Callahan said. "We have confidence in both our goalies. Both of them are very good."

That may be the case. But a tied Stanley Cup Final after four games should be no time for further experimentation with Vasilevskiy if Bishop is capable of performing his job.

Bishop can be inconsistent, but his experience can’t be measured by stats. Seasoned heart and will are part of his profile, and in a time when such things can deliver a championship, the most tested of faces should be on the ice.

Bishop’s gritty 36-save effort in the Game 3 victory in Chicago, while presumably injured, will be recalled for a long time if the Lightning win the Cup. Vasilevskiy has made at least that many saves only once this season, when he stopped 45 shots in a loss to the New York Islanders on Dec. 20. Vasilevskiy has faced no more than 26 shots in a single game during four postseason appearances.

Then there were Bishop’s big performances in Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings (31 saves) and Games 5 (26) and 7 (22) against the New York Rangers. There will be a time for Vasilevskiy’s resume to grow. But the Stanley Cup Final serves as a mental grind as much as a physical and emotional roller coaster.

Bishop, if healthy enough to play, stands best prepared to manage the next two or three games because of the stamina gained in the marathon completed so far.

"Vasy did a wonderful job for us last night," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said Thursday. "He did the job that he needed to do, gave us a chance to win that game. He did that. Now, does Ben get out of the net a little quicker, handle the puck better, snap it up? Yeah, he’s got a little more experience.

"We have as much confidence in Vasy as we do in Bish. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot missing, other than probably the experience that you only get from playing, clearly, and the puck handling."

Oh, but that experience is exactly why Bishop should be in net for Game 5 and beyond. All this assumes he can stay upright on both skates, of course. The weight of the Lightning’s Cup hopes could rest on his broad shoulders.

Vasilevskiy has a promising future, but Bishop is best prepared to handle the present.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.