TAMPA — The graphic popped up on the television in the Lightning dressing room before Friday's must-win game in Montreal.
Its information wasn't promising for Tampa Bay. It displayed goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's statistics in the second game of back-to-backs when he played both games. Vasilevskiy had never won a second game, going 0-2-1 with a 4.56 goals-against average. But goalie coach Frantz Jean said that considering the stakes, it was a "no-brainer" to start Vasilevskiy. "I think he actually took that as a challenge," coach Jon Cooper said.
Vasilevskiy, 22, rose to the occasion with a spectacular performance, lifting the Lightning to a 4-2 victory. With Tampa Bay's season on the line, Vasilevskiy won back-to-back games in Toronto and Montreal to help keep the Lightning's playoff hopes alive, making some how-did-he-do-that saves that went viral on social media.
"I just want to do everything possible to help our guys," Vasilevskiy said.
Though Tampa Bay will miss the playoffs, that Vasilevskiy has shown he can handle the No. 1 role might be the most encouraging — and important — takeaway from this season. He is 11-4-2 since the Lightning traded two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in February. The future is now, and it's in good hands.
"We wouldn't be where we are without him," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "If you Google 'competitor,' he's probably the first guy that pops up. He's just been unbelievable, making some really big saves in big moments. His consistency has been lights out since he got the No. 1 job. He's putting everything together, and he's got all the tools to be one of the best in this league."
Cooper lauded Vasilevskiy's maturation this season, noting the 2012 first-round draft pick was more prepared in March to take over the No. 1 role than he would have been in October. Vasilevskiy struggling during a nine-game midseason stint when Bishop was hurt was a huge step mentally for him. "He never wavered from his game plan, never wavered from his approach, and it pays off," Jean said. "Right now he's reaping all the results from that stubbornness of staying the course."
Jean said Vasilevskiy's success as a starter hasn't surprised the organization considering his talent, poise and work ethic, on par with that of former captain Marty St. Louis. "He's really looked like a No. 1, a good one," Jean said. Said Cooper: "He's clearly ready to take the reins."
The 40 club: Capitals star Alex Ovechkin once told me that Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov could score 50 goals in a season "easily." The league is starting to see why.
Kucherov, 23, reached 40 goals Friday for the first time, continuing his dark-horse candidacy for NHL MVP. He became the fifth Lightning player to score 40, along with Steven Stamkos (four times), Vinny Lecavalier (twice), St. Louis and Brian Bradley. Stamkos has Lightning record with 60 in 2011-12.
"It's (Kucherov's) first, not the last (40-goal season)," Hedman said. "I told him he's got to score 20 goals (in today's regular-season finale against the Sabres) to beat 'Stammer.' It's so tough in this day and age to score that many goals."
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Kucherov is tied for second in the NHL in goals, four back of the Penguins' Sidney Crosby (44). Kucherov also joins Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny and Ilya Kovalchuk as the only Russians with a 40-goal season at 23 or younger.
SLAP SHOTS: I thought the two-game suspension for the Bruins' Brad Marchand was too light for his spear of the Lightning's Jake Dotchin on Tuesday. Marchand had been suspended or fined seven times previously, and clearly he hasn't gotten the message. Make him sit for a playoff game or two; maybe that'll work. … You wonder if the NHL's decision to not go to the Olympics next year will lead to another lockout. The players can opt out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2019, and Lightning player representative Alex Killorn said it's likely they will. … Rookie Yanni Gourde, who can be an unrestricted free agent this summer, should have several suitors, including the Lightning. … Backup Peter Budaj has been the perfect partner for Vasilevskiy and said he'd be interested in returning to the Lightning this offseason, when he can be an unrestricted free agent.