TAMPA — Even the players weren’t quite sure. With their net being occupied by their starter, their backup, their starter, and, finally, their backup again, the Lightning players had to try alternate methods of learning their own up-to-the-minute lineup.
As Steven Stamkos said, “No one really knew what was going on. We were kind of listening to the announcements of who was in net for our team a couple times.”
Ultimately, it didn’t matter.
Even with the Lightning turning to backup Andrei Vasilevskiy for five saves on five shots in a crucial 9:13 in the third period, they still found themselves walking out of Amalie Arena with the win, a 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks that evened the Stanley Cup Final at a game apiece as the teams head to Chicago for Game 3.
“Usually in a situation like that you tighten up,” Stamkos said. “Obviously you feel for him getting thrown in there like that. He made a pretty good save on I think [Brad] Richards there on the power play. He made another one. We’ve got confidence in that kid.”
There was little more clarity after the game, at least outside of the Lightning dressing room. After the assembled media were told that Ben Bishop was in “treatment” and unavailable for comment, Lightning coach Jon Cooper declined to give any more information.
Cooper, in fact, opened the postgame news conference by saying, “Before we get going, I hate to be that guy . . . I won’t answer a question about the goaltending or what happened tonight.”
What happened was odd, as Bishop skated off the ice at 7:17 of the third period, came back 1:32 later, then left again at 12:19. This time, it was for good. In that first minute-and-a-half shift, though, came the game-winner, a Jason Garrison power-play goal at 8:49 that would have given Vasilevskiy the win whether or not Bishop returned.
“I’m sure it can’t be easy for him,” Ryan Callahan said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”
And so it was that after the game, Vasilevskiy stood in front of reporters to explain his night in broken English. In fact, video cameras were banned from recording the words of the backup goaltender.
“Every game I’m just ready and if Coach tell me to go in, I go in,” he said. “That’s it.”
Asked if he was nervous, Vasilevskiy said, “Nervous? Just maybe a little bit, but after the first couple shots I feel myself better.”
And his teammates had faith in the 20-year-old. As Victor Hedman said, “We feel very safe with Vasilevskiy in the net, if that’s going to be the case. He’s proven at every level that he’s a winner, and he’s one of the best goalie prospects in a lot of years. And we’ve seen him battle throughout games this year. We’ll see what happens, but we have two great goaltenders that can win games for us.”
The culprit for Bishop could have been a controversial goal by Brent Seabrook in the third, on which it seemed clear that Marian Hossa had interfered with him. But the goal, at 3:38, counted — a goal that might have been overturned had the Coach’s Challenge been instituted before the start of the playoffs.
“I didn’t feel anything,” Hossa said. “Maybe when the puck went in the net already my blade touched his pad a little bit. But I think that was it.”
Before the goaltender swapping, the game had lived up to all it was supposed to be. It was the hockey that everyone had been waiting for, anticipating, salivating over, ever since the Blackhawks beat the Ducks and the Lightning beat the Rangers in their conference finals.
Here was the speed. Here was the back-and-forth. Here was the fun.
After a conservative and defensive-minded Game 1, Tampa Bay and Chicago exploded into Game 2, a game that saw four goals scored in the second period alone. To recap: Blackhawks, Blackhawks, Lightning, Lightning, with a power-play goal and a shorthanded chance and a puck slipped between a skate and a post and a tap-in off a pretty feed and — whew — it was on to the third period.
And that was when things got complicated.
But it was before that, in the second, when the intensity of this series was evident. After the Lightning scored first for the second straight game — Cedric Paquette, 12:56 of the first period — the Blackhawks scored two quick goals, just as they had on Wednesday.
The Lightning got the next two, courtesy of Nikita Kucherov (6:52) and Tyler Johnson (13:58), the latter putting Tampa Bay on top and setting a new franchise record for goals in one postseason with 13. Of the Johnson goal, the one that found open space even with Crawford tight to the post, the goalie said, “You can’t give those up in these games.”
But he did. And so, the Blackhawks and the Lightning are guaranteed a Game 5 in this series. With both teams having found their legs in Game 2 — having opened up their hockey — that’s probably a good thing.
“It was a little bit of a track meet there for a while, but we kept with it,” Stamkos said. “We found a way.”