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The Lightning need Andrei Vasilevskiy to be other-worldly again

John Romano | Tampa Bay’s early-season struggles were matched by the goaltender, whose numbers were not as dominant as last season. In recent games, that seems to have changed.

Five minutes into the second period, Boston is leading the Lightning 1-0. Despite the score, Tampa Bay has outplayed the Bruins much of the game, but momentum is starting to shift at the beginning of a two-minute, 4-on-4 sequence.

TAMPA — The view from atop the world can be spectacular, and just a little precarious.

This is where Andrei Vasilevskiy found himself a few months ago. He had just turned 25, and was the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s top goaltender. He had a new eight-year, $76 million contract extension that was the second-largest ever given to an NHL goalie.

From a perch so high, what more could an athlete possibly want? Perhaps the secret to avoiding a fall.

Boston’s Brad Marchand fires a shot from the right side of the net that Vasilevskiy stops. Seconds later, Torey Krug sends a pass across the ice to David Pastrnak standing all alone in the faceoff circle. Vasilevskiy slides from one side of the goal to the other just in time to block Pastrnak’s one-timer.

Related: Steven Stamkos, power play boost Lightning over Bruins

The basic numbers say Vasilevskiy is not playing as well as last season. His goals-against average is up (2.40 to 2.78), and his save percentage is down (.925 to .910).

The more advanced stats are even worse. Goals Saved Above Average is a stat designed by hockey-reference.com to determine how a goaltender is faring relative to the league average. Last season, Vasilevskiy was second in the NHL. He is currently 30th.

This doesn’t necessarily mean his play has fallen off a cliff. The Lightning have been experimenting with different defensive strategies this season, and it’s still a bit of work in progress. In other words, it isn’t all Vasilevskiy’s fault.

“You can sit here and say, oh maybe there are some saves that Vasy might have wanted back in certain games," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “But a lot of those games you can’t say we entirely helped him out. I think when your team defense improves, your goaltending is going to improve as well."

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) is congratulated by center Anthony Cirelli (71) at the conclusion of Thursday's win. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

And that’s been the case the past week. Vasilevskiy’s save percentage is .958 in his past three games with a 1.33 goals-against average. More importantly, the Lightning are 4-1 in December with Vasilevskiy in net.

Thirty seconds after the Pastrnak shot, the Bruins are rushing the net. Charlie Coyle ricochets a shot off Victor Hedman’s leg and the puck lands in front of the net. Jake DeBrusk aims a wide-open shot in the upper corner that Vasilevskiy stops with a flick of his glove.

Even if the stats are somewhat skewed by Tampa Bay’s defensive evolution, the naked eye says Vasilevskiy has gotten off to a slower start.

He was so good last season that he masked a lot of the Lightning’s deficiencies. Tampa Bay won games it had no business winning in the regular season simply because Vasilevskiy was that dominant.

Those type of games have been far less conspicuous this time around. Vasilevskiy isn’t playing poorly, he just isn’t blowing minds so routinely.

Related: Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy makes franchise history against Ducks

“Do you want him to be the first star every night? Yes, you do. Do you want (Nikita) Kucherov to be the best player on the ice every night? Yes, you do," said Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean. “But the reality is players are not machines. Sometimes they don’t get the start of the season they want. It doesn’t mean the season is a failure, it means that you have to continue to progress and elevate your game.

“We’ve got another 52 games to play. There’s a ton of hockey out there, and he’s going to continue to evolve."

The 4-on-4 has ended, but not the Boston deluge. Pastrnak shoots from the right faceoff circle, then Coyle from the other side. Seconds later, Brandon Carlo has a one-timer from the left side. Six shots on goal in 4:34, including two prime scoring opportunities. Vasilevskiy stops them all.

Everyone agrees the past month has looked much better. Both for the team, and its All-Star goaltender.

Vasilevskiy has always held himself to the highest standard. He works harder than most, and expects more than most.

When he was a younger goaltender still making a name for himself, it was easier to improve and exceed expectations. Now that he is among the best in the world, it’s a greater challenge to live up to the aura he has created around himself.

“The space between a Vezina winner and getting even higher is very, very difficult," Jean said. “It’s a tough thing to do because anything less than being stellar is viewed as “Oh well, there’s a drop in performance.

“He’s an elite talent but more than that he’s an elite worker. Elite in his preparation and his work ethic. When you have that, the sky is the limit. That’s where he is."

The Bruins have taken a penalty and, seconds later, Steven Stamkos ties the game on the power play. The Lightning take the lead in the third period, and go on to win 3-2. All thanks to a four-minute stretch in the second period when Andrei Vasilevskiy was, once again, one of the best in the world.

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