TAMPA — The Lightning had a remarkable first half of the season. Nikita Kucherov is poised to lead the league in scoring and win league MVP. Steven Stamkos is all the way back from injury. Victor Hedman is on his game. Brayden Point has established his star. Tyler Johnson looks like it’s the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs again.
It will still take the goaltender.
It will take Andrei Vasilevskiy.
He’s the most dominant goalie on the league’s most dominant team. Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in practically every goalie category. He was named an All-Star on Wednesday for the Tampa Bay showcase. He has six shutouts. The dude is a win machine.
"We believe in him a hundred percent, even more than that," Johnson said.
"I don’t know where we’d be in the standings or how we would have finished," said Hedman, who was also an All-Star selection. "He’s won so many games for us."
Vasilevskiy is there when the Lightning needs him. He stops shots, he stops slumps. Bad goal? He turns the page. He might lead the league in that, too.
The 23-year-old from Tyumen, Russia, might win a Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie. Yeah, I’d say trading Ben Bishop has worked out. Vasilevskiy makes GM Steve Yzerman and coach Jon Cooper look like the smartest guys in the rink.
Now: Get the kid some rest.
Vasilevskiy notched another win Tuesday against Carolina, but he also let in four goals and didn’t look that great, this after a shaky loss at Ottawa on Saturday. Make it 10 goals in his past two games. And there are three months to go before the playoffs.
We all know what Vasilevskiy wants. His net is his net. He reacted angrily Tuesday when Carolina scored a late empty-net goal.
"I sense a goaltender who is proud in the net, who works his tail off," Cooper said. "His commitment to his team and his will to win is what I see in that kid. The great ones do not want pucks to go by them. Say that was the first goal, he might have showed that same emotion. He’s a fighter, and he wants to win."
The fighter still needs to be paced.
All that matters is how the Lightning is playing going into those playoffs, or more precisely, how Vasilevskiy is playing. That’s a long time to wait.
Backup Peter Budaj is recovering from an injury. Backup back-up Louis Domingue earned more playing time with that win at Detroit on Sunday. There are real options for a team way out in front of everybody.
This month’s All-Star weekend is out as a rest period. Vasilevskiy will be playing —- and looking for a shutout. Cooper points to the impending six-day break for the Lightning.
"There’s no question," he said. "What’s coming up after Thursday is almost a week-long break. That’s a pretty good time to recharge the batteries."
Maybe the Lightning isn’t overloading Vasilevskiy. But it should think twice.
Keeping Vasilevskiy fresh, keeping him healthy, keeping his edge, is what matters. So much rides on it. His great start means nothing without a greater finish.
Vasilevskiy is only 23 and in top shape. He could play in nearly 70 games. Bishop averaged more than 60 games when he was the top Lightning goaltender. This kid can take a pounding.
That doesn’t mean he should.
Do you want to get knocked out of the playoffs regretting that Vasilevskiy wasn’t as sharp as he could have been?
Nothing beats having a hot goaltender at playoff time. The Lightning needs to get Vasilevskiy some rest, against his will if need be. The same goes for rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.
Having a hot goaltender at playoff time is like having good pitching to stop good hitting in the baseball postseason, or a quarterback to rally around in the NFL playoffs.
Vasilevskiy has carried the Lightning a lot of nights, but they weren’t April, May or June nights, though he did play well in the 2015 Cup final and the 2016 Eastern Conference final when Bishop was hurt.
The most important thing these last three months of the regular season will be the Lightning finding time for its star goalie to rest.
The Lightning rode Nikolai Khabibulin to the Cup in 2004. It rode Dwayne Roloson to Game 7 of the conference final in 2010. And it was only as good as Bishop was in making the 2015 Cup final and 2016 conference final.
But I also remember Bishop breaking down in the postseason, and it cost the Lightning dearly, though Vasilevskiy has playoff experience because of that. But Vasilevskiy wasn’t No. 1 at the time.
He is now. I don’t care if you have to tie him down to keep him out of the net. I don’t care if you have to send him home or have the plane leave for a road trip without him.
Andrei Vasilevskiy will mind the net.
Until then, the Lightning needs to mind him.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly