Andrei Vasilevskiy is the Lightning's MVP.
He has been the team's backbone.
And that's often a heavy load to carry.
So you can't blame Vasilevskiy for admitting he's a bit tired, mentally and physically. He's in uncharted territory in his first full season as the Lightning's No. 1 goaltender. His 55 games entering tonight's against the Rangers are a career high, with five of his past six starts going beyond regulation.
Vasilevskiy said Wednesday that fatigue has affected his play. He has given up 68 goals in his past 21 starts, an average of 3.23 per game, after allowing 64 in his first 33 (1.93). Though how the team has played in front of him has a big part in that different.
"Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before," Vasilevskiy, 23, said. "I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it's like you think, 'Oh, I'm good, I can play 60-plus.' But now when I'm on 50-plus, I'm like, 'That's tough.'
"So that's why sometimes I'm probably not as sharp, like (I was) probably the first half of the season. That's why I have to adjust and be on the top of my game."
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Vasilevskiy isn't saying coaches are overworking him. He's the first to tell them he would love to play in every game. Plus, every No. 1 goalie has to go through this a first time. Former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop did, as did tonight's opponent, Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist.
"You learn by playing and dealing with yourself — your emotions, the ups and downs, and how to manage the energy," said Lundqvist, who has played in 60-plus games a season eight times. "It's hard for someone to tell you what to expect. You deal with it. You battle. Playing a lot of games, yeah, it's a grind. It's a battle. You just have to mentally be prepared for that."
This is an important issue facing the Lightning's most important player.
How Vasilevskiy and coaches handle the grind will go a long way toward determining whether they hoist the Stanley Cup in June.
Coaches try to play backup Louis Domingue at least once every four games. And coach Jon Cooper said that with the Lightning two games into an eight-game homestand and two games in seven days next week, there are chances to give Vasilevskiy a break. That would put Vasilevskiy in the mid-60 range for starts, which is typical for No. 1s.
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"In the end, it's how you get your goaltender ready for the playoffs," Cooper said. "As a coaching staff, you look at pockets of schedule that can help. … There's no question that 'Vasy' looks after himself physically. It's the mental grind that is the aspect of the game everybody goes through."
Vasilevskiy said he plans on getting more treatment after games as opposed to riding the exercise bike; that's what he did after Saturday's 7-6 shootout win over the Flyers.
"As Vasy always says, 'Stretch and hydration,' " Cooper said.
Cooper said Vasilevskiy has done a great job adjusting his between-starts routine since taking over for Bishop in February 2017; for example, Vasilevskiy will take off some optional skates.
"Sometimes you tell him, 'You're not going on the ice today,' " Cooper said.
It's not easy. Vasilevskiy has an impressive work ethic and is a relentless competitor. Teammates joke that he approaches postpractice shootout attempts like a playoff game. So coaches sometimes have to save him from himself.
"It's probably, I wouldn't say my weakness, but I have to stay away from hockey a little bit," Vasilevskiy said. "I have to take more rest. Usually I'm working pretty hard in practice and off the ice. Now it's 50-plus games, and soon I hope it's going to be 60- to 70-plus, so I have to be fresh, I have to be sharp to help our guys get points and stay on the top of my game."
Vasilevskiy entered Wednesday second in the NHL in starts and total ice time, and third in shots faced (1,768). In 18 of Vasilevskiy's past 24 starts, the Lightning has allowed 30 or more shots. To Cooper, the quality of shots matters more. Either way, Vasilevskiy hasn't had many easy games recently.
"When you're tired physically, you probably will be mentally tired, too," Vasilevskiy said. "I have to take more treatments, more rest then, eating well, sleeping well, and sometimes just get away from hockey to keep my mind in good shape.
"I'm kind of discovering more new things in my body now. When I played 50-plus games, I feel much different than when I played 20 games in a season. It's all a good experience for me. So I will have to adjust to it and be fine."
Times staff writer Roger Mooney contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.