TAMPA — Goaltending is crucial in the playoffs. To some extent, that can be said about every element of the game. But few factors can lift or sink a team like the goalie.
The Lightning have an elite goaltender. That was reaffirmed Friday with Andrei Vasilevskiy being named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goalie, for the third year in a row. He has been a full-time starter for only three seasons.
Vasilevskiy won the award, voted on by the league’s general managers, last year when he backstopped the Lightning through a historic regular season. This season wasn’t quite on that level, but Vasilevskiy had a strong finish to the schedule abbreviated to 70 games by the coronavirus.
The other finalists are Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Boston’s Tuukka Rask.
Vasilevskiy led the league in wins again with 35. That statistic tends to correlate with the general managers’ choice for goalie of the year.
The season started off shaky for Vasilevskiy and the Lightning as a whole. He didn’t necessarily play poorly, but he wasn’t at the standard he has set for himself. But by mid December, he looked like the goalie the Lightning had signed to an eight-year, $76 million contract in the offseason.
Vasilevskiy went on a 21-game point streak (19-0-2) from Dec. 17 to Feb. 15. From Dec. 17 on, he led the league in save percentage at .924 (compared to his season mark of .917, tied for 14th in the league).
Coming out of last year’s playoff disappointment, in which he looked rather pedestrian as the Lightning were swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round, Vasilevskiy was one of few players to stand up and say, “I have to do better.”
Goalie coach Frantz Jean believes that establishing a baseline is crucial for a player to do well in the playoffs. Special players can elevate their game in the postseason, but for most players, how they do reflects how they trained in the regular season.
“I truly believe in times of pressure, you fall back to the level of your training,” he said. “When (elite players) fall back to their standard, it’s still better than everybody else.”
When the pressure mounts and fatigue sets in, that baseline determines what level of play any player can maintain. This year, that baseline is a little tricky.
Vasilevskiy had to learn to take days off to let his body heal rather than keep training at a maximum level all the time. But, like everyone else, he has had four months away from the ice.
In-line skating on Bayshore Boulevard helped him stay in shape, but that goes only so far.
“Of course, it’s hard because my cardio isn’t that great the first few days,” Vasilevskiy said. “Two, three more weeks and I’ll be ready for the playoffs, I hope.”
The Lightning, an automatic qualifier for the playoffs, are scheduled to play their first game for seeding Aug. 3.
Preparation is hard for a goalie, who might need game time even more than skaters. In drills, goaltenders know where the shots are coming from and what’s going to happen. In games, they don’t.
To be fair, most goalies don’t take shots from Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point in scrimmages. But every team has a sharpshooter, and even if a goalie can get his conditioning up and sharpen his skills, that still doesn’t account for the pacing of a game.
Jean said the ability to focus throughout a game presents a challenge with a short time to prepare to play after a stoppage. In practice, goalies are constantly taking shots, he said. In a game, there are long stretches when play is at the opposite end of the ice and special teams can disrupt the flow.
Vasilevskiy has matured in the six years since he made his NHL debut, especially in his three years as a starter. Jean sees it in how Vasilevskiy handles adversity, particularly how he responded to the slow start to the season.
“He never panicked,” Jean said. “It was, ‘Let’s find solutions, let’s go back to the film and really break it down. Let’s adjust and building what we need to build to get back to an elite level.’ "
Vasilevskiy, with the help of Jean and Lightning sports psychologist Ryan Hamilton, found his way back. Now he has to do the same thing in a different way to get back to form with only two weeks of training camp, one exhibition game and the round-robin seeding games before the playoffs.