TAMPA — The T-shirts around these parts read “GRAND THEFT ANDREI.” The pun is okay, but the sentiment is spot on. Just ask Taylor Hall.
Andrei Vasilevskiy stole a goal from the newest Coyote in Thursday’s first period on the way to his first shutout of the season, a 4-0 victory over Arizona that extended the Lightning’s winning streak to nine games, tied for the second longest in franchise history. The streak also is the longest current one in the league.
Hall, who was named the league’s MVP two years ago, pickpocketed the Lightning’s Jan Rutta in the neutral zone and skated in on Vasilevskiy with a step on the defenseman. Rutta forced Hall to one side, making Vasilevskiy’s job a little easier.
But Hall, acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Devils on Dec. 16, still got off a great shot. He faked like he was going for a hard wrister from between the hashmarks but continued on net with speed and tried to tap the puck in at the last second. Vasilevskiy’s pad was there, or at least his toe was.
“I knew (Hall) has very good skill,” Vasilevskiy said. “I just tried to keep my gap as long as possible. He made a great move, and I had to make an awkward save. My flexibility helps me a little bit.”
His offseason yoga pays off in those moments. Vasilevskiy’s speed across the crease and his flexibility belie his 6-foot-3, 207-pound frame.
He didn’t have to make many saves like the one on Hall in the game, but the Lightning (26-13-4) needed Vasilevskiy early and late. The Hall save was one of two good chances the Coyotes had on turnovers in the first period, and then Vasilevskiy was tested again late in the game.
Twice previously this season, Vasilevskiy had been close to a shutout but allowed a goal in the final minutes. This time he held on.
Vasilevskiy had to make only 25 saves, but he has said he finds low-shot games a challenge compared to ones when he sees 30 to 40 shots. It’s harder to find his rhythm when he sees fewer shots, he says.
The Lightning’s past two games didn’t give him that heavy of a workload; he saw only 23 shots from the Canucks in a 9-2 win Tuesday. Vasilevskiy has looked just as smooth and confident as he did in a 39-shot night against the Canadiens last week.
The coaches have talked to Vasilevskiy about things he can do during TV timeout and stoppages to keep himself in the game and to maintain his focus. It’s working.
“It’s been awhile,” Vasilevskiy said of his last shutout (327 days and 52 games ago). “(Thursday) I thought we played perfectly."
Vasilevskiy has won his past seven starts. He was inconsistent through the first 30 or so games of the season but has settled in and returned to his game.
“It means a lot (to get the shutout) for our team and him,” said Nikita Kucherov, who scored two second-period goals. “He’s been unbelievable lately. People are going to say what they want about his game, but I think he’s the best player in the league. He proved it (Thursday).”
Vasilevskiy’s teammates have never put anything on him after a loss this season, even when the goalie wasn’t providing the boost they were accustomed to. They would mention how many times he has had bailed them out in the past. Now he looks more confident and smooth in the net, more like the player who was voted the league’s top goalie last season.
“He’s battled all year,” said Steven Stamkos, who had two assists in the game. “He’s hard on himself, but he’s been outstanding on this (winning) streak. Both goalies have. You don’t win nine in a row without elite goaltending, and (Vasilevskiy) was elite (Thursday).”
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Killorn 18 (Paquette, Maroon), 15:06. 2, Tampa Bay, Sergachev 7 (Maroon, Paquette), 18:24. Penalties—None.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 16 (Stamkos, Point), 6:15. 4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 17 (Stamkos, Rutta), 8:52. Penalties—Coburn, Tam (Unsportsmanlike Conduct), 3:30.
Third Period—None. Penalties—Paquette, Tam (Tripping), 4:47; Arizona bench, served by Garland (Interference), 12:44; Johnson, Tam (Roughing), 12:44; Hall, Ari (Roughing), 12:44.
Shots on Goal—Arizona 10-8-7_25. Tampa Bay 10-12-12_34. Power-play opportunities—Arizona 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 0 of 1. Goalies—Arizona, Hill 1-1-0 (34 shots-30 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 21-9-2 (25-26). A—19,092 (19,092).