ST. PAUL, Minn. — There were questions before Friday's Lightning game about why Andrei Vasilevskiy got the start in net against the Wild over Ben Bishop, who had been on a roll.
The question afterward was more positive for the Lightning: Does it even matter?
In a measuring-stick game, Tampa Bay secured a huge point in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Western Conference-leading Wild at Xcel Energy Center. And Vasilevskiy was a big reason why, making 37 saves in a sensational performance, which might have been his best of the season.
" 'Vasy' came up big time for us," defenseman Anton Stralman said.
The Lightning (24-24-7) has picked up five points in its past three games, pulling to within five of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. And it can thank its goaltending, which has been up and down for most of the season. But Bishop has back-to-back wins, including Tuesday's shutout of the Kings. And if the touted tandem continues to play like this, Tampa Bay might have a shot at a playoff spot.
"We've got belief in these guys," coach Jon Cooper said. "Here we are, in crunch time, and these guys are giving us a chance to win every night. And that's what we need."
Vasilevskiy hadn't started in eight days, but he was sharp from the start of the game to his sprawling glove save at the overtime buzzer. Mikko Koivu scored the only goal in the shootout to seal the win for the Wild.
The Lightning gave another strong, engaged effort.
"That game was there for the taking," Cooper said. "Minnesota is a really, really strong team in this league. The (Lightning) guys know that they can play with anybody."
Said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau of Tampa Bay: "They're starting to feel it right now."
Though the Lightning continued to keep an opponent in check, it continued to struggle to score, especially against Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk, who got his league-leading 30th win. It didn't help that the Lightning was playing without center Tyler Johnson, out with an undisclosed injury.
The Wild struck first with six minutes left in the second period. Wing Nino Niederreiter pounced on a rebound in the slot late in a power play and backhanded the puck in. But the Lightning answered three minutes later. Rookie center Brayden Point redirected a wrist shot from defenseman Jason Garrison through Dubnyk, tying the score. Four of Point's six goals this season have come off deflections.
"You're rewarded when you go to the net," Cooper said. "Clearly a big goal."
Vasilevskiy made sure the Lightning remained tied in the third, making a huge stop on hard-charging wing Zach Parise with four minutes to go. Vasilevskiy then robbed center Mikael Granlund two minutes later on a 2-on-1. He stoned Parise again in overtime.
"I've got to stop the puck if I want to play here," Vasilevskiy said.
With the game over barely 10 minutes, Vasilevskiy got on an exercise bike in the hallway. Bishop walked by in his suit, telling the 22-year-old Russian he did a good job. Stralman said that when Vasilevskiy and Bishop play this well, it's contagious.
Said Vasilevskiy: "All together, we'll find a way."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
|Wild wins shootout 1-0|
|Wild wins shootout 1-0|
First Period—None. Penalties—Sustr, TB, (high sticking), 7:27; Scandella, MIN, Major (fighting), 16:52; Boyle, TB, Major (fighting), 16:52; Zucker, MIN, (holding), 17:29.
Second Period—1, Minnesota, Niederreiter 18 (Granlund, Pominville), 14:31 (pp). 2, Tampa Bay, Point 6 (Killorn, Garrison), 17:16. Penalties—Boyle, TB, (tripping), 12:42; Pominville, MIN, (high sticking), 18:31; Hedman, TB, (holding), 19:39.
Third Period—None. Penalties—Dumont, TB, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:53; Coyle, MIN, (cross checking), 18:53.
Overtime—None. Penalties—None. Shootout—Tampa Bay 0 (Point NG, Drouin NG, Kucherov NG), Minnesota 1 (Pominville NG, Koivu G, Parise NG). Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 9-7-10-1—27. Minnesota 11-9-13-5—38. PP opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 2; Minnesota 1 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 11-12-4 (38 shots-37 saves). Minnesota, Dubnyk 30-9-3 (27-26).