TAMPA — Anton Stralman was yelling to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy from across a music-filled Lightning dressing room Tuesday night, laughing about what he was feeling during the final highlight-reel stop of the night.
Stralman thought Leafs forward William Nylander had scored in the final minute, putting a rebound inside the left post. But a sprawling Vasilevskiy got a piece of it, preserving his second straight shutout, a 2-0 win over the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Vasilevskiy said the shot hit the post and bounced under his pad.
"It wasn’t actually a save," Vasilevskiy said. "It was luck, pure luck."
Vasilevskiy is quick to downplay his success and his scoreless streak — which has reached 164 minutes. He credits teammates for their play in front of him. But those in the Lightning room firmly believe Vasilevskiy is the best goalie in the world. And with a league-most 26 wins, six shutouts and a .937 save percentage, it’s hard to argue. Vasilevskiy is certainly the hottest, with three shutouts in his last four starts.
"He’s been our best player all year," wing Chris Kunitz said. "He might be quietly going about it, but not in this locker room. We know how hard he works. He keeps the composure of our team. When he’s unfazed, our team just goes out and keeps playing the same way."
The Lightning (29-8-2) looks like it’s taken on the mentality of its No. 1 goalie. Vasilevskiy’s relentless work ethic and laser focus keep him from looking too far ahead. It’s a team full of dynamic stars and scorers, but they can also check, too, shutting down the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nylander on Tuesday night (largely due to the Brayden Point line). The Leafs were thought to be a top challenger in the Atlantic Division, but the Lightning now has a whopping 12-point lead.
Coach Jon Cooper thought the game would have a playoff feel — and the teams would make for one fun seven-game series — but it ended up a little understated.
"Both teams checked, we got a couple breaks and pucks went in the net," Cooper said.
The Lightning’s breaks came in the second period, though it earned its luck. Cedric Paquette scored his first goal in nearly a calendar year (Jan. 21), one-timing a pass from Kunitz. Kunitz made it all happen, forechecking and stripping the puck from goalie Frederik Andersen. It gave Paquette a tap-in, the gritty forward smiling moments later on the bench as he threw the figurative monkey off his back
Then came Alex Killorn’s goal, with three minutes to go in the second. Killorn’s one-timer appeared to trickle through Andersen, but it was only until about five seconds later — when play was stopped by the horn — that he was credited with his goal. The NHL situation room, on the 10th floor of the same building, had verified via replay Killorn’s shot went in.
"It popped right out, so I didn’t think it went in," Killorn said. "I knew when the buzzer went, it was a goal."
That’s how good this Lightning team is, winners of 12 of the last 14. The Leafs held Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman off the scoresheet. And it still lost. That’s largely due to Vasilevskiy, who came through with some key saves in the first period.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, Paquette 1 (Kunitz), 12:00. 2, Tampa Bay, Killorn 5 (Sergachev, Gourde), 16:54.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 12-13-11—36. Toronto 10-7-12—29.
Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 25-5-1 (29 shots-29 saves). Toronto, Andersen 20-11-1 (36-34).