TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy’s best performance outside of the regular season came in the offseason.
In the wake of the Lightning’s sweep by the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, the goaltender stood in front of a pack of reporters and did something no one else on the team did: He said he needed to be better. He didn’t say “we.” He said “I.”
This was the 24-year-old Russian who has expressed discomfort with talking to the media because of his imperfect but understandable English. Yet, he was the one to take individual ownership after the team’s playoff collapse.
Vasilevskiy wasn’t bad against Columbus. He just wasn’t great. And in regular season, Vasilevskiy is one of the best. Saturday, for the second straight year, he was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goalie.
Three separate times in the sweep’s wake he said, “I have to do better.”
There wasn’t a lot of accountability around the Lightning’s dressing room, neither immediately after Game 4 on Tuesday nor in the wrapup interviews Thursday. General manager Julien BriseBois and coach Jon Cooper referred to execution, which, no matter what they said, sounds like a player issue. Players echoed the execution theme and said, “We need to be better.”
Vasilevskiy used the first person singular.
He wasn’t the only one who underperformed. He wasn’t even the worst. But the goaltender’s actions are the most glaring. If Steven Stamkos doesn’t score, maybe Brayden Point will (neither did until Game 4). If Ryan McDonagh breaks down, maybe Erik Cernak will cover the gap.
Rarely can anyone cover for the goalie.
Vasilevskiy never got comfortable against the Blue Jackets. Nor did he, in the words of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, get comfortable at being uncomfortable.
“I didn’t have many easy shots outside the blue line to feel my game,” Vasilevskiy said. “I have to find a way to feel comfortable, to catch my game, if the team on the other side starts the game with scoring chances right away.”
That is accountability.
Columbus did a few things well against Vasilevskiy. It dominated the net front (”I definitely have to be better to fight through it,” he said). It got quality chances early. It elevated the puck.
“The one trend was they were trying to elevate the puck on him,” NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. “Columbus detected something that you didn’t see from him in the regular season.”
Eight of the 15 goals Columbus scored on Vasilevskiy were elevated, and six were on his blocker side. He might have been sinking into his butterfly stance too early, exposing something that hadn’t been open in the regular season.
The quality chances were a change from the regular season as well. In the final of three regular-season games between the Lightning and Blue Jackets, Vasilevskiy faced 40 shots. He still didn’t have to work as hard in that game as he did in any of the games of the playoff series.
“There were so many chances on him early and often,” McGuire said. “Columbus spent a lot of time in the Tampa zone.”
The shots-against total weren’t that high — Vasilevskiy never saw more than 30 in any of the games — but they were in close, taken with open lanes. Those chances made it harder for Vasilevskiy to control rebounds, something else he did well in the regular season.
Matt Duchene’s goal to open Game 3 was the combination of all three elements. Zach Werenski’s initial shot from the point wasn’t great, but Cam Atkinson engaged Dan Girardi in front of the net, screening Vasilevskiy. The goalie, unable to get a good angle, slid wide of the net to make a pad save. The rebound deflected wide to the other side, where Steven Stamkos had left Duchene alone to pounce.
The goal wasn’t entirely Vasilevskiy’s fault. But in the regular season, he handled most of those situations smoothly.
In the playoffs, teams need to count on their goalie to steal a game. The Lightning needed Vasilevskiy to do so only once through the final month of the regular season (and he made good with 54 saves against Washington). But Tampa Bay needed it in the playoffs.
“I have to do better,” Vasilevskiy said. “I have to help my teammates too so they can catch their game and play better.”
It wasn’t all on Vasilevskiy, but he was willing to put it on himself, something others didn’t do.
“He’s a franchise player, and that’s what you want from a franchise player,” McGuire said. “All the teams that win championships have players like that.”
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at [email protected] Follow @dianacnearhos.