TORONTO — Frantz Jean fakes a shot at Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning goaltender hugs the post to make the imaginary save, then quickly lunges to the opposite post, as if reacting to a rebound at his back door.
Jean, the Lightning’s goalie coach, puts the netminders through their paces before practice begins. Then Vasilevskiy faces the most potent offensive team in the NHL during the session.
When he makes his way to the dressing room afterward, sweat soaks through the insulated, slightly padded shirt he wears under his chest protector. It’s not even the layer closest to his skin, and still the equipment staff pinches the shirt with two fingers rather than with a hand.
It all reflects Vasilevskiy’s teeming work ethic, but there can be too much of a good thing, even if that good thing involves being one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.
In 2017-18, his first year as a starter, Vasilevskiy wanted to be on the ice all the time. But by the end of the season, Vasilevskiy was worn down. At his exit interview after the Lightning lost in the Eastern Conference final, he expressed concern about feeling better going into the playoffs.
Mission accomplished. As his second full regular season as the starter winds down, Vasilevskiy feels fresher.
“I would say yes,” he said. “I had an injury in the middle of the season (a broken left foot suffered in a November practice), and that’s probably given me a little more rest.”
Maybe he should feel more rested than other goalies, Vasilevskiy said, smiling, but there’s more to it than missing 14 games with the broken foot. He has also has learned to balance his practices and when to take opportunities for time off.
This season Vasilevskiy rarely participates in optional morning skates. He said he realizes he needs the extra rest.
That realization came from talking to the coaching staff, particularly Jean. Together the two have found a better practice balance, and Vasilevskiy no longer believes he has to deliver maximum effort every time, saving it for games.
He has also learned to accept taking games off. He now understands why he needs to do that, though he seldom wants to.
The difference shows in Vasilevskiy’s statistics. The 24-year-old has produced career-best numbers in save percentage, .925, and goals-against average, 2.42, entering Thursday night’s game against the Maple Leafs. (His goals-against average was slightly lower in his first year as a pro, 2014-15, but that was in 16 games, not even enough to count as a rookie season.)
Vasilevskiy’s career statistics
Most indicative of the difference Vasilevskiy feels this season: his quality starts percentage. The metric denotes the frequency of games in which a goalie’s save percentage is better than his season average, adjusted for games with fewer shots against.
Last year Vasilevskiy had a .563 quality starts percentage. This year he’s up to .635. He was fifth in the league among goalies to play 40 games entering Wednesday, and the youngest on the list.
Coach Jon Cooper praised Vasilevskiy’s development as a full-time starter and his management of his body and mind.
“He’s much better at turning the page,” Cooper said, “and just moving on to the next game no matter how it went, regardless if he (had) a shutout or gave up four (goals).”
Vasilevskiy has shown frustration at bad games; there has been some stick swinging and slamming of gear in the dressing room. Most important, that hasn’t carried over.
Only once has Vasilevskiy lost back-to-back games, but the first loss was in a shootout and the second was in overtime. Four of his six shutouts have followed a loss.
Managing these seemingly smaller things has had as much, if not more, of an impact on Vasilevskiy’s game than tweaks to any in-net technique.
“I’m trying to stay in shape, trying to work hard every day and take every opportunity to be better,” Vasilevskiy said, “but at the same time, I understand that I have to be smart about my job and save energy for the game.”
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.