Friday, June 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning needs Andrei Vasilevskiy to turn in best-ever game pronto

PITTSBURGH

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to Game 7.

Ah, yes, the famous words uttered by George Santayana. He played backup goalie for the old California Golden Seals, right?

Well, anyway, the Lightning is condemned to a Game 7 tonight because it didn't learn from last year's mistake. Just like last season when it lost Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final at home, the Lightning again blew a chance Tuesday night to reach the Cup final when it lost to the Penguins on home ice.

It now must buckle up for a do-or-die, winner-take-all, loser-goes-golfing Game 7 tonight in Pittsburgh. Looking on the bright side, the Lightning did win last year's Game 7 in New York. And most of the players who played in that game will be on the ice tonight for the Lightning.

Most. Not all. There is one key difference. One player who did not play in that Game 7 is expected to play tonight. He also happens to be the most important player for the Lightning.

Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Last year, he was on the bench as Ben Bishop pitched a brilliant shutout in Tampa Bay's 2-0 victory that sent it to the Cup final. This time, Bishop is expected to be on the bench, sidelined by an injury suffered early in Game 1.

That means Tampa Bay's fortunes, its ticket to the Stanley Cup final, now rest in the glove hand and blocker of a 21-year-old Russian who will be playing in the biggest game of his life. Yes, he did play in last year's Stanley Cup final. He even won a game in the final. But this is different. He didn't play in an elimination game last year.

This is such a game. If he drops the puck, the Lightning's season is over.

"If he plays the same way he has been playing so far, he's going to give us a chance to win," forward Valtteri Filppula said. "That's what you want from your goalie."

Is it? Is that all you want from your goalie?

Look, it's hard to find fault with Vasilevskiy. He has given the Lightning a chance throughout this series. Since taking over, Vasilevskiy has won three and lost three.

"I think Andrei is the big reason we're in a Game 7," coach Jon Cooper said.

That's true. Partly.

Certainly, Vasilevskiy has made crucial saves in the Lightning wins and can't really be blamed for any of the goals in the Lightning losses. He also has been hung out to dry way too often by a suddenly porous Lightning defense.

"Unfortunately, we maybe haven't delivered for him as much as we wanted," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "But he has been tremendous."

It just seems like Vasilevskiy is going to give up three goals. Minimum. Three goals. And it doesn't matter whether he faces 45 shots or 15 shots. Three goals allowed seems to be the number.

Okay, so he gave up just one in the Game 1 victory. But after that, he allowed three in the 3-2 overtime loss in Game 2, four in a 4-2 loss in Game 3, three each in pair of 4-3 victories in Games 4 and 5. And four (not counting the empty-netter) in Game 6's 5-2 loss.

Overall, his numbers are solid: a 2.88 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage. At times he has been under siege, such as when he faced 90 shots over Games 2 and 3.

"He has made big save after big save for us," Cooper said.

That's true, too. You can look back at the three Lightning victories and find huge saves that Vasilevskiy made to either set up or preserve the victory.

But still, those three goals allowed. Don't you get the sense that if Bishop was in there, he would be giving up an average of two a game?

Maybe this is totally unfair, but here's what it feels like:

Vasilevskiy has given his team a chance to win every game. He hasn't allowed any soft goals. He has made big saves. But he just hasn't stolen a game and, until he does, you have to wonder if he can.

At this time of year, giving your team a chance to win simply isn't enough. Sooner or later, a goalie has to single-handedly win a game for a team that gets outplayed. Bishop has done that in his career. And tonight, the Lightning might need that from Vasilevskiy.

"I said this before, (but) it doesn't matter who's in net for us," Stralman said. "We have tremendous faith in both of them, and they're two really, really good goalies."

Someday, and that day might be sooner than you think, this will be Vasilevskiy's team. He is an outstanding goalie, maybe even potentially truly special.

But, the Lightning needs him to be truly special right away. It needs him to be special tonight.

Cooper points out that Vasilevskiy is in a groove. He has played six consecutive games and performed well. Maybe he is due to take his game to a new level, to bring one lights-out performance. He has won a game in Pittsburgh in this series.

"You've got to like that the kid feels pretty comfortable playing there," Cooper said, "and we like that."

Let's see if that's the sentiment around 11 o'clock tonight. If so, that's the type of history the Lightning would like to repeat. For years to come.

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