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Struggles of Lightning's Vasilevskiy part of his learning curve
6 2017 . Tampa Bay Times.

PHILADELPHIA Charles McTavish went on his laptop Friday morning, saw Thursday's Lightning-Predators score and was surprised.

McTavish is an Ottawa-based goalie coach who has worked with the Lightning's Andrei Vasilevskiy the past five summers. And after seeing Vasilevskiy on the wrong end of 6-1 loss, McTavish checked in with the 22-year-old Russian.

"How are you feeling?" McTavish asked him in a text message.

"A little emotionally tired," Vasilevskiy replied. "I'm thinking about it too much."

Vasilevskiy has a lot to think about. He has had to fill the shoes of two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, who is out at least another week with a lower-body injury suffered Dec. 20. This also is Vasilevskiy's first real audition for the No. 1 job he has always dreamed of. As Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean says, "You don't want to miss your shot."

"(Vasilevskiy is) the kind of guy who puts too much pressure on himself," McTavish said. "He probably wanted to take the net and never give it back."

Though many expect Vasilevskiy to be the future of Tampa Bay, he is worried about the present. The Lightning (19-17-4) is desperately fighting for a playoff spot, and Vasilevskiy is fighting, too, going 4-3-1 with a 3.16 goals-against average in eight games since relieving Bishop. He has allowed five goals in back-to-back games, including two softies Thursday. Both came on seemingly harmless wrist shots that Vasilevskiy would glove nine out of 10 times.

"The terminology 'gripping the stick too tight' when a player is in a slump, I think the terminology applies to goaltending in a more mental aspect," McTavish said. "It's like overthinking a simple situation."

Already you hear Lightning fans who wanted to trade Bishop now hitting the panic button with Vasilevskiy. They say, "He's not ready." Vasilevskiy's answer: "I'm still learning."

Vasilevskiy needs to be better. Thursday was an example of when a No. 1 goalie needs to step up in a must-win home game .Consistency is the key in developing into a No. 1, and Vasilevskiy is still trying to find it.

To be fair, this is Vasilevskiy's first time going through this. He had never played on back-to-back nights as a pro. Now he has done it twice in the past few weeks, and he might again today in Philadelphia and Sunday in Pittsburgh. Vasilevskiy has even tried to adjust his pregame routine, McTavish said.

In his Friday talk with Vasilevskiy, McTavish used a familiar line from the movie The Last Samurai. A teacher tells the student he is using "too many minds."

"I was joking, 'You have to have 'no mind,' '' McTavish said.

"Okay, next game I'll have no mind," Vasilevskiy responded.

The Lightning hasn't treated Vasilevskiy with kid gloves (other than not making him available to the media after Thursday's game). Coach Jon Cooper has started Vasilevskiy in seven straight games, pointing out that most NHL starters have the same schedule. Cooper didn't consider pulling him Thursday, pointing out that Hall of Fame goalies went through similar struggles. It's part of the learning curve.

"He's at a young age, risen to the best league in the world, and there's something to be said about that," Cooper said.

A telling sign will be how Vasilevskiy bounces back today against the Flyers, who have lost five straight (0-4-1) and are three points ahead of the Lightning for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Bishop should be back soon, possibly for the Jan. 16 game in Los Angeles. It's hard to imagine the Lightning not going back to Bishop for at least a split of the starts with Vasilevskiy.

Bishop has been in Vasilevskiy's shoes. He says his nine-game stretch as a starter with the Senators before a 2013 trade to Tampa Bay gave him the confidence he could be a No. 1. "It's great for your career and kind of learning how to take that next step where six, seven starts turns into 60," he said.

Said Vasilevskiy: "Now I have to do the same thing as 'Bish.' "

He's just not there yet.

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