Andrei Vasilevskiy stood in locker room A at Amalie Arena in April 2019 and used a word his teammates hadn’t: “I.”
Just about everyone else on the Lightning had said some version of “we needed to be better” after they were swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs.
“I have to do better,” Vasilevskiy said three ways in the wake of that disappointment.
It took more than a year for the star goalie to get another playoff chance. And in that time, he was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie, signed a contract worth nearly $10 million a year and was nominated for another goalie of the year award.
Since the Lightning finally made it back to the playoffs, he has done what he said he would do: be better.
“I meant that I have to stop the puck more, do a little bit more than last year,” he said last week. “So far, I’ve done it. We’ll see.”
Vasilevskiy said it felt good for the Lightning to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference final — which begins Monday night against the Islanders in Edmonton — “especially after last year. We kind of screwed it up.”
As the Lightning have advanced through the bubble tournament, Vasilevskiy has been their stalwart in net. Of those teams that made it to the conference semifinals, he’s the only goalie to have played every game.
The Islanders used a tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss in the regular season. Varlamov has played most of the playoffs.
The Stars, facing the Golden Knights in the West final, also used a tandem in the regular season. But with Ben Bishop unavailable most of the playoffs, they’ve been going with Anton Khudobin. Vegas has used Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, recently riding out the hot hand in Lehner. But Fleury started Game 1 of the West final Sunday night.
There’s no question of a tandem or who is the hot goalie for the Lightning. Vasilevskiy is their guy.
Before the Lightning’s exhibition game of the season restart, against the Panthers in July, coach Jon Cooper said backup Curtis McElhinney would play some before the start of the first round. Then he said Vasilevskiy would start but McElhinney might go on in relief. That hasn’t happened.
Vasilevskiy played both games of the back-to-backs against Boston in the conference semifinal, and Cooper said the goalie had had five months of rest because of the coronavirus shutdown and was fine.
Like most goalies, Vasilevskiy likes to play. He has had to learn balance as a starter, how to rest his body between starts, when to skip an optional morning skate. He plays a heavy load. Only two goalies played more games than his 52 in the shortened regular season.
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“He can take a huge workload,” Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom said. “He’s got the body for it; he’s conditioned for it. I don’t think anything bothers him now.”
Vasilevskiy leads the playoffs with 10 wins. Of goalies who have played more than five games, he entered Sunday third in save percentage (.931) and fourth in goals-against-average (1.91), and first among the remaining goalies in each category.
“Just like everybody on our team, what’s happened to us last year, guys want to be on the ice to rewrite a new story, and he’s no different,” Cooper said after the Lightning won Game 5 against the Bruins to advance. “He’s done a heck of a job, that’s for sure.”
While Vasilevskiy has done a heck of a job, he hasn’t made as many of the jaw-droppingly impressive saves he’s known for, nothing that makes you ask if he has eyes in the back of his head. But he hasn’t had to. The Lightning are playing better defense in front of him, limiting opponents’ quality scoring chances.
“If you always have to be spectacular, then there’s something wrong,” Engblom said. “If you always have to be spectacular, you’re behind the play.”
Palat said Vasilevskiy is still making huge saves — there was one he made while on his rear end, reaching for his stick, for example — and called the goalie their “best player every single night.”
The best goaltenders don’t have to move around a lot. They read the play and position themselves well, saving the sprawling save for dire moments. That’s what Vasilevskiy has done this postseason.