TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy did not speak with media Tuesday at Amalie Arena, which was fine. But for the Lightning to make a serious Stanley Cup run, its 23-year-old goaltender will need to be in the middle of the conversation.
We won't know until we know.
Vasilevskiy's first go as an NHL No. 1 was spectacular at times. He was an all-star. He finished with 2.62 goals against and a .920 save percentage. No goalie in the league had more wins (44) and no one in Lightning history has made more saves in a season (1,908). He won a lot of games on nights when the Lightning should not have won. We'd talk about his behind-the-back save, only he had two of them. Circus stuff.
Now comes the big top. The playoffs are out there. And Vasilevskiy slumped after the All-Star break, with just a .902 save percentage, exacerbated by a leaky defense in front of him, which gave up too many grade-A chances. Not that Vasilevskiy didn't think he should have stopped each and every one of them. Sometimes we had to remind ourselves that this was the top goaltender on the top team in the Eastern Conference. Vasilevskiy reminded us last week with a shutout in the final meeting with Boston. It was the night the Lightning drew a line. Vasilevskiy drew the biggest one.
Everything up until now has been like standing in line for Space Mountain. You wait, and you wait. But when the regular season finally ends, is all that waiting going to be worth it? #NHLPlayoffs @tomwjones #TBLightning #GoBolts #NJDevils @TB_Times https://t.co/KXPWVcy4JT— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) April 10, 2018
But we won't know until we know.
True, Vasilevskiy's playoff sampling is significant. He stepped into the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago in 2015. He stepped in again to play all seven games as the Lightning fell to the Penguins in 2016. He has played in world junior championships and world championships for Russia. He has lived a hockey life far beyond his years. But this is still new. He is The Man, and he will be to be just that, perhaps more than any Lightning skater, if this team is going to advance. He said as much last week when he shut out the Bruins.
A great goaltender can steal a game. A great goaltender can steal a series. The Lightning scored a league-best 296 goals in the season, but the playoffs have 2-1 or 3-2 written all over them. It will be a tight squeeze. And it will be up to the goaltender at times during games.
Look at Lightning history. When it won the Cup in 2004, it was behind Nikolai Khabibulin as much as anyone … his shutouts in the first round, his shutout in Game 4 of the final, that incredible save in the closing minutes of Game 7 to grab the Cup. When the Lightning came within a win of the final in 2011, it was Dwayne Roloson blanking the Penguins in a Game 7 and nearly pitching another one against the Bruins in Game 7 of the conference final. And there was Bishop's magic in 2015.
Now comes Vasilevskiy. The stage is his.
"He's one of the best goalies in the world," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "No experience in the playoffs or little experience in the playoffs, I don't think it matters when you have that mentality that he has and the mental strength that he has. … I'm really excited that he's going to get his shot now, and really showcase what kind of player he is."
The old saying goes that if you're going to have playoff success, your best players have to be your best players, Tom Jones writes. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TB_Times @TomWJones @RogerMooney50 @gregauman @mjfennelly #NHLPlayoffs #NJDevils https://t.co/9pgQZ4sdof— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) April 10, 2018
"In the end, it's all about winning, and that kid reeled off 44, and that's a pretty darn high number," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Vasilevskiy's coaches and teammates see a fiendishly hard worker and fiery competitor, the kid who kicks himself over garbage goals given up in lopsided Lightning wins, the kid who during a recent near bench-clearing brawl in Boston went after Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. A linesman had to hold back Vasilevskiy. This is the kid who wants in on every game.
"He's probably the one leading the charge," Cooper said. "I know how many times he said, 'I can play every game, Coach.' I say 'I know you can Vasi. If there's one kid who can do that, it's you.' You have to protect them from themselves a little bit."
I don't know if playing 65 games offered much protection, but Vasilevskiy is only 23. Still, you wonder if the Lightning put too much on him this season. Cooper left Vasilevskiy home for the team's final game at Carolina. Took it right out of Vasilevskiy's hands. Now it's back in his hands. The stage awaits.
I like the kid's chances.
But we won't know until we know.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029