BRANDON, Fla. — More confident in his goaltending than his English, Andrei Vasilevskiy had one request of reporters Friday.
“No cameras,” the young Russian said, wagging his finger to shoo away any stragglers.
Vasilevskiy is in hockey’s brightest spotlight at the Stanley Cup final but isn’t comfortable with his broken words being videotaped. Depending on the health of Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Ben Bishop, he may again be the centre of attention for Game 5 against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
Bishop missed Game 4 on Wednesday with an undisclosed injury and didn’t practise Friday. His status is the biggest intrigue in the series with the Lightning and Blackhawks tied at two games apiece.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper called it part of the plan for Bishop to take the day off. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
“We’re going to play the guy that gives us the best chance to win the game, whoever that guy is,” Cooper said. “If Ben Bishop can play a game, he’s playing.”
Vasilevskiy said after practice Friday he didn’t know yet if he was starting. The Blackhawks will play the waiting game with everyone else.
“Tough to forecast that,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “We’ll see what happens. I know that we expected him to play last game.”
Injuries often pile up this time of year. Lightning centre Tyler Johnson is battling something in his hand, arm or wrist — he hasn’t taken a faceoff since one in Game 2 — but insists he’s fine and has stayed in the lineup.
Bishop left Game 2 on June 6, started Game 3 Monday and missed Game. Amid all the uncertainly, Vasilevskiy is not just calm but enjoying living out a childhood dream.
“I’m here in North America just to play hockey,” Vasilevskiy said Friday. “The last two days I have more fun than all season.”
Vasilevskiy stopped 17 of 19 shots in Game 4 and felt good about his first start since March 31.
“I was ready for big pressure on me,” he said.
The 20-year-old Vasilevskiy has been in pressure situations in the world junior championship and KHL playoffs. None of that quite prepared him for facing the likes of Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad, who scored on him in Game 4, or Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, who doesn’t yet have a goal in the series but could break out at any time.
Vasilevskiy’s best preparation has come from his interactions with Bishop. Called up in January to replace the ineffective Evgeni Nabokov as the full-time backup, he leaned on Bishop to learn how to prepare like a professional.
Asked if he had any goaltending heroes, Vasilevskiy smiled and joked: “No, nobody. I liked how Bish played.” His sense of humour and knowledge of English curse words came through even if he hesitated at times.
“I still speak not really good for cameras,” Vasilevskiy said. “But for writers, yeah. For you, you can change words.”
On the ice, Vasilevskiy is quieter than Bishop, defenceman Matt Carle said, and in the grand scheme of things, the major difference between him and Bishop is he can’t handle the puck quite as well. That’s the biggest real adjustment for the Lightning during goaltender roulette.
“Vasy is getting better at handling the puck, but not at the level of Bish,” Carle said Thursday. “From the standpoint of them stopping the puck, we don’t change the way we play.”
Blackhawks forward Andrew Desjardins said flipping opposing goalies with varying puck-handling skills doesn’t affect the forecheck at all.
“The tactic doesn’t change too much,” Desjardins said. “The prep’s there. You’re ready for anything.”
Johnson’s injury is another lingering problem for the Lightning. After not taking any faceoffs in Games 3 and 4 and skipping that exercise in practice, Tampa Bay’s leading scorer didn’t want to explain why.
“I think everyone’s banged up,” Johnson said. “When you play this long, I think it’s 104 games already, when you’re doing that, you’re going to be bumped up a little bit but it doesn’t matter right now.
“It’s the Stanley Cup. There’s a maximum three games left and then you’ve got all summer to rest.”