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Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is where he belongs after a slow start

NHL all-stars and players around the league praise the Lightning goalie for his size and athleticism, and for making both desperation and “boring” saves.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes his third NHL All-Star Game appearance Saturday in St. Louis. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

Andrei Vasilevskiy slid over to get his toe on a shot from Arizona’s Taylor Hall. He pushed from post-to-post to make a pad save on Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes a few nights later, posting consecutive shutouts.

It’s just what he does.

Oh, and the Lightning goalie mixes in the occasional wild behind-the-back save like the glove move against the Kings two years ago or the pad save against Toronto last season.

Related: Hockey H-O-R-S-E and other ideas for more fun at the NHL All-Star Game

Vasilevskiy appears in his third NHL All-Star Game at 7 p.m. Saturday (NBC). Asking around the league, you hear the same response about what makes him special: his unique combination of size and athleticism.

“He’s got a little bit of Dominik Hasek in him,” Capitals all-star goalie Braden Holtby said.

That’s high praise. Hasek won the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the top goalie in the league, six times (Vasilevskiy won his first last season). Hasek is known for his athletic saves, for flopping around to make the wild desperation saves. He (6-foot-1, 166 pounds) didn’t have Vasilevskiy’s size (6-foot-3, 207).

“He’s so big and he takes up so much of the net,” Buffalo all-star Jack Eichel said. “With that size, he’s got so much athleticism. Even when you think you have him beat, and you see net, he pulls off a pretty remarkable save to stop you. He’s one of the best goalies in the league for a reason.”

Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog added to that. What makes Vasilevskiy impressive is not just that he makes the wild desperation saves. It’s that he also makes the boring saves, swallows the puck, and doesn’t allow many rebounds.

Vasilevskiy made a few big saves in those consecutive shutouts of the Coyotes and Flyers, but he made more of the boring saves Landeskog referenced. Sometimes, boring is what you need.

The combination of size and athleticism, of desperation and boring saves, can get in a skater’s head. It can force a player to make an extra pass, look for that perfect shot.

“In the course of a game, you might try to do that,” Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby said. “You try to make better passes around him. But as a shooter, you have to just trust your instincts and look for that opening.”

The openings can be hard to find. Not just for opponents, but teammates, too.

The Lightning shoot on Vasilevskiy more than anyone else. They practice against him. Brayden Point sees it frequently, to himself, his teammates and the opponents, you think you have Vasilevskiy and then all of a sudden his pad is there.

Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne is most impressed with what Vasilevskiy has done at the age of 25. Goalies typically come into the league older. Vasilevskiy made his debut at age 20.

Related: Andrei Vasilevskiy found his game and won consecutive shutouts in January

Vasilevskiy did have a delayed onset of the inconsistency often seen from young goalies. At the start of this season, he didn’t look like a defending Vezina Trophy winner or an all-star. He looked average.

That’s not to say Vasilevskiy played badly. He played inconsistently and gave up goals he could usually be counted on to save. Vasilevskiy couldn’t be counted on to steal a game, something elite teams need of their elite goaltenders.

Vasilevskiy, the player coach Jon Cooper calls the first one in and last one out of the rink every day, worked through the struggles.

When the all-star rosters were first announced on Dec. 30, Vasilevskiy wasn’t on the list. And he didn’t seem like a glaring absence. Less than a month later, having replaced Boston’s Tuukka Rask, he seems like a given.

Vasilevskiy is back on the leaderboard, too. His 24 wins lead the NHL. He has the best save percentage (.962) and goals-against average (1.13) in January. Sometimes save percentage can be aided by some high-shot volume games. But Vasilevskiy faced 25 shots or fewer in three of seven starts this month.

“He’s been really, really good,” Rinne said. “Even though he has athletic abilities, he still plays an efficient game to me. He uses his big body and plays a fairly quiet game. When he needs to, he can make those desperation saves. He’s an awesome goalie.”