Andrei Vasilevskiy's dreams are coming true

St. Louis Blues' Brayden Schenn, left, is unable to score past Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Blues' Brayden Schenn, left, is unable to score past Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Published Dec. 13, 2017

GLENDALE, Ariz — Nikita Kucherov's toughest challenge isn't facing Canadiens goalie Carey Price, or Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky.

It comes in practice against Andrei Vasilevskiy.

"I've been saying, I thought he was going to be the top goalie in the league in a year or two - but he is right now," said Kucherov, the NHL's leading goal scorer. "I feel if you can score on Vasy you can score on any goalie in the league."

Not many are scoring on Vasilevskiy these days. The Lightning goalie is off to a historic start. His 3-0 victory over the Blues Tuesday night gave him a league-high 20 wins, making him the sixth goalie in NHL history to reach that mark in his first 25 starts.

Vasilevskiy is the league leader in goals against average (2.15) and save percentage (.933). NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes says he might be his favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie.

Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos are likely locks for January's All-Star Game in Tampa. Both say Vasilevskiy should be there, too.

"There's no question who we'd vote for in here," Stamkos said.

"This guy is an All Star, this guy is a Vezina Trophy goaltender," said NBSCN broadcaster Brian Boucher, a former NHL goalie. "I'd be shocked if at the end of his career, we're not talking about several Stanley Cups in his resume. I really think he's that good."

This is all a dream come true for Vasilevskiy, 23, who spent a couple years behind Ben Bishop before the Lightning dealt Bishop before the trade deadline last season.

"I'm having so much fun so far," Vasilevskiy said. "But it's a long season."

(RELATED: Lightning blanks the best of the West)

Vasilevskiy said his main adjustment in becoming No. 1 has been a mental one. Not getting too high after strong streaks, or down after bad goal or two. You mention making the All-Star team, and Vasilevskiy admits it's "one of my hockey dreams."

"But I just play my game," he said. "After two months, we'll see."

Vasilevskiy said it helps he's played so much, keeping him from over-thinking. He's started 25 of the team's 30 games, a workload he embraces.

"I'm young, so I can handle it," Vasilevskiy said. "It's more difficult for my mind. There are a lot of things that appear in your mind, you've got to handle it, be prepared. You can't think, if you win a couple games, you can't think you'll win the next game for sure. I've got to be tough mentally."

Physically, Vasilevskiy has made adjustments in his preparations that help him stay fresh. He's being smart with his time in the gym, knowing when to take a morning skate.

Vasilevskiy appears even more calm in net. Part of it is that Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said Vasilevskiy has improved on identifying shooters and handling the forecheck. Vasilevskiy is still no Bishop in terms of puck-handling, but is much better.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

And Vasilevskiy is more mature in handling his in-game emotions, something that rubs off on teammates.

"He's really mentally strong," Kucherov said. "He gives up a goal, he stays calm. Doesn't matter if we're down 2-0, he still thinks it is 0-0. He doesn't think about it."

(RELATED: The switch that gave Tyler Johnson a boost.)

Vasilevskiy approaches practices with the same compete level as games. Teammates dub him the "Big Cat" for his quick catlike reflexes, which he uses to thwart even their post-practice shootout attempts.

"They start to celebrate when they score, and I'm just really (ticked)," Vasilevskiy said, smiling. "But it's fun too. We make each other better."

And Vasilevskiy one of the best.

"I knew he was going to be good," Kucherov said. "I didn't know he was going to be unbelievable."

Contact Joe Smith at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.