TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy likes to stay busy. The Lightning goaltender says he’s most comfortable when he’s seeing a lot of pucks headed his way. It allows him to get into a rhythm and make the dynamic, game-changing saves fans have come to expect from him.
The bigger challenge for Vasilevskiy is when he doesn’t get much work, which has happened to him early in games several times this season. Then in the third period, the opponent goes on an offensive surge and Vasilevskiy suddenly finds himself under siege.
Fortunately for the Lightning, that’s when Vasilevskiy has been at his best.
As a result, he might be off to the best start of his young but accomplished career. He already has a Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup to his credit at the age of 26. But early in his fifth full NHL season, Vasilevskiy is showing he’s nowhere near the peak of his potential.
“It helps having the best goalie in the world,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He’s a competitor, and he’s a big reason why we are the team that we are. We have him back there making some saves that shouldn’t be saved, and he makes it look easy, so it obviously helps big time. He’s grown so much since he got into the league. He’s always had the talent, but now he’s just so consistent.”
Entering Saturday’s games, Vasilevskiy ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average (1.87) and save percentage (.935) among goaltenders with at least 10 games. His 11-3-1 record puts him on pace to lead the league in wins for the fourth straight season.
“I think the experience factor is extremely important in the position,” Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean said. “And now he’s four or five years into his NHL career, and I think the fact that last year he had a really, really solid playoff, won the Stanley Cup, that brought to him I think a lot of confidence into his process and into what he’s doing every day. The end result of his process is a Stanley Cup, so he realized that, he accomplished that. So I think there’s so much more trust in what he’s doing and his approach.”
Vasilevskiy’s coaches said they’ve seen the most improvement in his ability to manage games mentally, especially when he’s not getting action early yet able to stay calm when facing a third-period rush.
“The athletic ability and all those things, you get to see as a kid comes up at 20, 21, 22 years old,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But it’s how do you process the game as a goaltender? Can you turn the page when things go poorly? And I’ve really watched him grow. And that’s how you become elite.
“Your skill and your athleticism will make you good, might even make you great, but if you want to be elite, you’ve got to be calm between the ears, and that’s what he’s become.”
During Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Carolina — Vasilevskiy’s first shutout of the season and the 22nd of his career — he faced 11 scoring chances in the third period after seeing 12 in the first two periods combined. At one point in the second period, the Hurricanes went nine minutes without a shot.
Two nights earlier in Raleigh, N.C., Vasilevskiy turned away 17 shots in the third period as part of his 32 saves in a 4-2 Lightning win.
“The more experience you have, the much easier it gets,” Vasilevskiy said following Wednesday’s win. “It’s just part of my job to stay focused and calm when they try to make a push in the third. I just tried to play my game and stay calm and focused throughout the game.”
Jean said Vasilevskiy’s experience shows on and off the ice. He now knows when he needs a day off or a shorter skate. He is proactive with the coaches in selecting his maintenance days. And when he sometimes struggled with the pace of games, Jean said Vasilevskiy worked with the team’s mental performance coach, Dr. Ryan Hamilton, to help him stay in the moment.
“I think that’s the biggest step he’s taken in his years with the Lightning from when he started to now,” Jean said. “When he started, those games where he would get 15 to 20 shots and they would be really separated in terms of time in the game, he would just struggle. He would fight the puck, you know, and then he gets 45 the next night and he’d be lights out.
“So it was about finding a way to keep the focus in the game to still stay present in the game and on the task at hand and not get too far ahead or wondering in the past or wondering in the future. Vasy embraced those techniques and those ideas, and he became a better goalie, because now he’s able to manage those games and be really a performer in all sorts of games — a lot of shots or no shots.”
The result is a player who has earned the complete trust of his teammates.
There were times during a recent stretch of three losses in four games (Vasilevskiy was in net for only two of the losses) when the Lightning played turnover-prone hockey, resulting in too many odd-man rushes. But Vasilevskiy’s teammates never once lost faith that he would keep them in those games.
“The biggest benefit as a player of having a goalie like that is that you can just worry about your job,” Lightning forward Blake Coleman said. “If there’s a two-on-one, you play the pass because you know he’s going to stop that shot pretty much every time. So he gives you the confidence to play the right way in front of him.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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