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Forget the awards, history will judge Andrei Vasilevskiy

John Romano | It felt like a slight when Vasilevskiy was left off Vezina Trophy ballots, but the Lightning goalie has too many playoff wins in his future to worry about that.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a left pad save on Montreal Canadiens right wing Tyler Toffoli (73) during the third period of Game 2 Wednesday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a left pad save on Montreal Canadiens right wing Tyler Toffoli (73) during the third period of Game 2 Wednesday at Amalie Arena. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 1

TAMPA — We pause now for a moment of appreciation.

Not anger, not indignation, not incredulousness. Not boasting, not cocky, not outlandishness.

Just an appreciation of a goaltender at the top of his game.

The juxtaposition of Andrei Vasilevskiy being left off a handful of Vezina Trophy ballots, and then going out 24 hours later and performing brilliantly against the Canadiens in a 3-1 Game 2 victory is almost too good to pass up.

Kind of like the ultimate comeuppance for a man wearing a mask.

Except, in the end, it should mean more than that.

What we’ve watched the past two postseasons is a flirtation with greatness. He is not quite there yet, but Vasilevskiy is making a name for himself that will transcend regular-season stats or mere awards.

He is already one of the best — if not the best — goaltenders on the planet today. And should he get two more victories against the Canadiens, it will be time to start measuring him against goaltenders of the past, as well.

“Vasy stood tall when we were down,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Game 2.

Vasilevskiy is still days away from his 27th birthday and already has a 47-28 record as a goaltender in the playoffs. Hall of Famers Grant Fuhr and Patrick Roy are the only goalies that had more postseason victories at this age.

If he doesn’t get the acclaim that he is due, it is most likely because of the players he shares a locker room with. You turn your head one way and see future Hall of Famer Steven Stamkos. You look the other way and see future Hall of Famer Victor Hedman. You look in between and see former MVP Nikita Kucherov.

Even if the Lightning pull off a second consecutive Stanley Cup victory, Vasilevskiy will be in competition with Kucherov and Brayden Point for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

And yet, Tampa Bay’s success is based far more on defense than goal-scoring fireworks. Cooper has said it so often — “It’s not how many goals you score, it’s how many you keep out.” — that it’s become a joke. And yet, it’s entirely true.

Go back to last postseason. The Lightning were 13-1 when holding an opponent to two goals or less and 3-5 when giving up three goals or more. This year, the record is almost identical. They are 12-1 at two goals or less and 2-5 at three goals or more.

That’s Vasilevskiy and the defense.

And while Yanni Gourde’s shorthanded goal in a 1-0 Game 7 win against the Islanders is the highlight you will always remember, it was a Vasilevskiy sliding stop of an Anthony Beauvillier breakaway in the game’s opening minutes that kept the Lightning from chasing the lead.

“(That) big save like he had on the breakaway against Beauvillier? We were playing great, they get one chance, if that goes in, maybe it’s a different story. He makes that save, he allows us to stay confident,” Stamkos said. “It doesn’t surprise us any more in the room because of the preparation and the work he puts in.”

He did the same thing several times against the Canadiens in Game 2, including stopping a backhanded shot by Josh Anderson at the end of a power play in the second period just before Anthony Cirelli put the Lightning up 1-0.

By evening’s end, Vasilevskiy had stopped 42 of 43 shots, bringing his postseason save percentage to .939 and his goals-against average to 1.89. In NHL history, there are only three other goaltenders to have a save percentage that high and a goals-against average that low while playing at least 20 games in a single postseason.

Does that make him worthy of the Conn Smythe? Does it even really matter?

Before the series began, Vasilevskiy acknowledged he was thinking about the head-to-head matchup with Montreal star goaltender Carey Price but said Wednesday night that the time for comparisons is after the season.

“Trying not to think too much during the game,” Vasilevskiy said. “Whatever happens, win or lose, I just try to go out and play my best game.”

In some ways, this is the perfect metaphor of the Lightning’s journey. Not so long ago, Tampa Bay was the team that dominated regular seasons and award banquets. The Lightning had skill but little understanding of what it took to win in the postseason.

Nowadays, they have focused less on ancillary glories and more on the journey to 16 postseason victories.

And Vasilevskiy is the guy who can get them there.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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