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Do Panthers have Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s number?

Florida has had success against the Tampa Bay netminder this season, but it’s their style of play that makes them tough to stop defensively.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) reacts after the Florida Panthers scored the second of their two first-period goals in Game 3 Thursday in Tampa.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) reacts after the Florida Panthers scored the second of their two first-period goals in Game 3 Thursday in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 21
Updated May 21

TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy spent the regular season frustrating opposing offenses, facing nearly 30 shots a game and withstanding third-period charges with jaw-dropping saves when the Lightning needed him most.

On many occasions, he was an impenetrable wall and Tampa Bay’s most valuable player.

But the Florida Panthers clearly aren’t afraid of the Lightning goaltender.

Just three games into the first-round playoff series, Vasilevskiy has allowed 11 goals, including a season-high six in Florida’s 6-5 overtime win Thursday in Game 3. He didn’t allow more than 12 in any postseason series last season.

“We know he’s a good goalie, but we can beat him and we’re good enough to beat him,” Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said after Game 3. “And in a lot of games we scored a lot of goals against him. So I think (Thursday) again, six goals, I think we know we’ve just got to make it difficult for him and the puck will go in, and that’s what we did.”

The Panthers have built on the success they enjoyed against Vasilevskiy during the regular season. Florida was the only team he had a losing record (2-4) against, and his 3.36 goals-against average and .898 save percentage were his highest against team. He had a 2.02 GAA and .930 save percentage against the rest of the division.

Vasilevskiy didn’t allow more than 10 goals in any three-game span during the regular season until he allowed nine to Florida in the final two games with Lightning without several key players.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Friday he isn’t worried about Vasilevskiy. He needs his team to play better defensively in front of him.

“To give up the chances we gave up last night, you can have Vasilevskiy on steroids and it doesn’t matter,” Cooper said. “There’s only so much he can do. I think he’s been exceptional for us. He gives us a chance to win every night.

“I just think we could play a tighter game in front of him. And we’ve done that for periods in this series, and at times we haven’t. Vasy is the least of our worries.”

Vasilevskiy spent good chunks of the season carrying the Lightning when they had breakdowns defensively, and this year might have been one of his finest regular-season efforts because he slowed down games in the third period when opponents ramped up the pressure.

But the Panthers have shown they can create an attack on the forecheck in the neutral zone, then hit another gear to get into open ice in the Lightning zone once they possess the puck, resulting in scoring chances.

Though the Lightning have outscored the Panthers 13-11 in the series, Florida has a significant advantage in scoring chances both overall (104-65) and 5-on-5 (81-50), according to Natural Stat Trick. The Panthers lead 41-24 in high-danger scoring chances, a testament to their ability to possess the puck in this series.

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While there were several goals Thursday Vasilevskiy might normally have stopped — Gustav Forsling’s game-tying goal in the third period immediately comes to mind — the Panthers have done a good job of using their speed to push the puck quickly up ice and have taken away Vasilevskiy’s line of sight with traffic in front of the net.

“I think it’s the way that they play,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “They thrive on odd-man rushes, and it kind of changes the way the game is played. It’s different than if we were playing in Columbus. But I think for us, you’re not going to win many games when you give up six goals, so we’ve got to do a little bit better, (not) allowing goals, playing better defensively. And you know, not allowing them to get that open nice space when they’re on the rush.”

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