Jon Cooper faced the same dilemma heading into Game 4 as he did in Game 3, only this time, the Tampa Bay Lightning head coach's decision was a little bit clearer.
Entering the team's morning skate on Wednesday, Cooper admitted he had a pretty good idea that starting goaltender Ben Bishop, who's listed as day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, "probably wasn't going to be able to go." It was confirmed when Andrei Vasilevskiy led Tampa Bay out on the ice for pregame warm-ups.
While the outcome wasn't Tampa Bay's desired result, the rookie goaltender certainly did his part to win.
"If you tell me we're going to come in and he's going to give up two goals, that's a hell of a job in my book," Cooper said of Vasilevskiy's performance following a 2-1 loss to the Blackhawks that evened the series, 2-2, on Wednesday night. "That kid gave us every chance to win the hockey game. He showed at the pinnacle of the sport that he can play."
Vasilevskiy, who last started on March 31 in the regular season, said he found out after morning skate that he'd be getting the net for Game 4. And he reacted as a kid ready to seize the moment on the NHL's biggest stage.
"I was just excited and that’s it," he said. "I was ready."
The No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft played every bit as advertised, given the circumstances, stopping 17 of 19 shots. But it took him much longer than he, and the 22,354 fans at the United Center, expected before he was really tested.
Vasilevskiy didn't see his first shot until the 8:18 mark of the first period and faced a total of just three shots in the opening 26 minutes before the Blackhawks peppered 16 more the rest of the way.
Asked if he was nervous, Vasilevskiy admitted "just a little bit, maybe."
But he didn't show it.
"I can play under pressure," Vasilevskiy said. "For me, it’s not something new. I was ready for pressure from fans and players.”
And he may have to be again if Bishop can't go for Game 5. Cooper said "there's no question" Bishop will play again in the series, but concluded, "I just don't know when."
Whether it's Bishop or Vasilevskiy for Game 5, the Lightning remain a confident and resilient group heading back home, and, big picture, know they couldn't have asked for a better position to be in.
"If you’d have give us a best two-out-of-three at home at the beginning of the year to win the Stanley Cup," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said, "I think any team in their right mind would take that opportunity."
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]
If Vasilevskiy is, in fact, called upon for Game 5, Wednesday night proved to the Lightning — and the rest of the hockey world — he's up to the challenge. And while he continues to show great poise in net, it's also OK to soak it all in, like any 20-year-old would.
“I was just really excited. Really happy," Vasilevskiy said. "It’s my dream to play in the Stanley Cup Final. I can play better, for sure, but for the first time, not bad.”