PITTSBURGH -- When puck drops for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday at Consol Energy Center, chances are good that the goaltenders at either end of the ice will be 21 years old.
Fans have already seen what Penguins rookie goalie Matt Murray can do in the postseason, with his 7-3 record in 10 playoff games, while veteran Marc-Andre Fleury serves as the backup. And it appears the Lightning will have to rely on Andrei Vasilevskiy for Game 2 after starter Ben Bishop suffered a lower-body injury in Game 1 and is listed as day to day.
Most would think that it would be a challenge for a pair of 21-year-olds to perform at their best with a berth to the Stanley Cup finals at stake. Murray has proved to be poised and confident, and Vasilevskiy seems to have the same mindset. Having little NHL postseason experience could also help, in a way.
Former NHL goalie Andrew Raycroft was 23 when he played for the Boston Bruins during the 2003-04 season. He won the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year and led the Bruins into the first round against the Montreal Canadiens. It was his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"The word 'naïve' comes to mind pretty quickly more than anything, especially now that I'm old and looking back on it," said Raycroft, 36. "You don't really feel the complete gravity of it, which is obviously a positive, especially for these guys jumping into scenarios where they weren't really expecting it. I had a whole year to kind of expect it. I was probably gearing up for it a month or two earlier and I was really excited when it came. For these guys to jump in, I'm sure come August it'll really click in, so being a little naïve is a good thing and just going out and letting it fly."
Current Penguins coach Mike Sullivan coached Raycroft and the Bruins that season, and it ended with a loss to the Canadiens in seven games. Raycroft said he felt the coach had confidence in him, but it was also the presence of veteran Felix Potvin -- the former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie who had bounced around and was in his last season in the league -- that had a calming influence on Raycroft, similar to the relationship between Murray and Fleury.
"I'm willing to bet that Flower has been a huge help," Raycroft said of Fleury. "I know for the few weeks to have Felix with me and talking to him, he had been through the trenches many times and won many huge games through his career, so to have him there, and he was the kind of guy who would tell you, 'It's just another game.' I remember him having that demeanor and basically saying that to me. He was helpful to me, so I would imagine it's a similar scenario because Marc-Andre has a similar personality and he just goes out and plays and has fun with it. I would assume that helps."
In fact, Fleury has been a mentor to Murray and the two have a strong relationship.
For years, the knock on the Penguins was they didn't have a consistent goaltender who could carry a team through a deep playoff run. Sure, Fleury posted a 16-8 record during their run to a Stanley Cup in 2009, but it was more of the team in front of him that carried the workload. That spring he posted a 2.61 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. So, it's kind of a head-scratcher, wondering why some believe Fleury should replace Murray. Pittsburgh's loss in Game 1 had nothing to do with Murray, and Sullivan understands that and it would be shocking if he decided to make a goalie change.
"We leave all options on the table with all of our positions," Sullivan said. "It's not that we don't have these discussions on a daily basis, or a game-by-game basis, who we think is going to be in the lineup that gives us the best chance to win. As far as what went on [in Game 1], we feel as though Matt had a very strong game. The goals that were scored were high-quality chances. Very difficult saves. So, I don't think it's an instance where Matt had a subpar performance. That being said, we keep all options on the table. Those are discussions we'll have internally."
Despite being a rookie, Murray is not afraid to give his honest opinion when asked about Vasilevskiy.
"He's obviously a great goalie," Murray said. "He was drafted the same year I was, he's a first-rounder and played in the World Juniors. Yeah, he's a heck of a goalie. I don't think it's much of a drop-off losing Bishop. [Vasilevskiy] is such a good goaltender."
Vasilevskiy was the first goalie taken in the 2012 draft, chosen 19th overall by the Lightning. Murray was also in that same draft class and the Penguins selected him in the third round (83rd overall). There are similarities between the two other than the year they were drafted -- both are confident and talented.
Vasilevskiy played in the finals last spring against the Chicago Blackhawks. He entered Game 2 of that series after Bishop suffered an injury in the third period during Tampa's 4-3 win. Vasilevskiy then started Game 4 and suffered a 2-1 loss. That little bit of experience should help, but in his mind, it was a season ago and it has no connection to his current opportunity. And that confidence will serve him well. He's also praised for his work ethic and known to be one of the first players at the rink every day, and the last one to leave.
"If there's one thing that Vasilevskiy will never be knocked for, it's preparation and work ethic," Cooper said. "That's in his DNA."
In Game 1, the Lightning did just about everything to keep the puck from getting to Vasilevskiy. Tampa blocked 20 shots and did a solid job of keeping the quality scoring chances to a minimum. It allowed him to shake off any rust he had, and it proved crucial in the victory. Moving forward, he has no issues with being the starting goalie if needed.
"That's why I'm here," he said with a smile.
Depending how long Bishop is out, Vasilevskiy is ready for this opportunity.
"Yeah, for sure. That's my dream," he said. "Bish is a huge loss for us but I will do everything I can."