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Lightning’s ‘Big Cat’ looking to tame Panthers

After finding his postseason form against Toronto, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy faces another dangerous offensive foe in Florida.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy played a big role in the Lightning being able to come back from a three-games-to-two deficit to beat the Maple Leafs in seven games.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy played a big role in the Lightning being able to come back from a three-games-to-two deficit to beat the Maple Leafs in seven games. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 16|Updated May 16

TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy admitted something was wrong with the Lightning in their first-round playoff series against the Leafs.

It showed in the way they struggled to close out games early in the series. Tampa Bay was outscored 11-6 in the third period through the first five games and entered Game 6 on the brink of elimination because of it.

“We didn’t have much luck in the third periods,” Vasilevskiy said Monday, on the eve of the start of the second-round series against the Panthers. “And it’s been an issue the whole season, as well. For some reason, we just weren’t able to close out the games like we used to last year. In the playoffs, the first few games we weren’t really successful. But the last two games, I thought we played like a Lightning playoff team.”

Vasilevskiy played a huge role in the team’s ability to climb out of a 3-2 series hole to beat the Leafs. He stopped 43 of the final 44 shots he faced in the series, including all nine in overtime of Game 6 and 30 of 31 in the do-or-die Game 7.

Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) is stopped by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during the third period of Game 7 Saturday in Toronto.
Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) is stopped by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during the third period of Game 7 Saturday in Toronto. [ NATHAN DENETTE | AP ]

“I thought the first few games we didn’t have much emotion,” Vasilevskiy said. “It’s been an issue, like, the whole season. We gave away so much energy and emotions the (past) two years just that we didn’t have much time to recover (from) all the stuff.

“But I thought that in Game 6, we were able to find that next(-level) positivity and next(-level) emotions. Plus, our fans, they give us so much, too, a great atmosphere, so it was a huge overtime win. And in Game 7, I think we played our best hockey so far in these playoffs.”

Vasilevskiy’s numbers against Toronto — an .897 save percentage and 3.04 goals against average — might not have been his best compared to his recent postseason excellence, but his knack for making clutch saves in key moments played a big role in the series win.

“We’re spoiled, and I think everyone is spoiled watching him play,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s easy to look up the stats and everything, but some saves he’s made throughout the series have been key.”

Two moments quickly come to mind.

With the Lightning up 1-0 early in the second period of Game 2, Toronto was pressuring the net and Tampa Bay clogged the middle but struggled to gain possession. The Leafs put three shots on goal during a seven-second stretch, and on the last shot — Timothy Liljegren’s wrister from the slot — Vasilevskiy made a lunging glove save to get a whistle. On the next shift, Corey Perry scored on a rush to put the Lightning up 2-0. They never looked back in a 5-3 win that evened the series at a game apiece.

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Then, there was Vasilevskiy’s blocker save on an Auston Matthews wrister late in the second period of Game 7 that led to a rush the other way that resulted in Nick Paul’s series-clinching goal. Mitch Marner found Matthews on the rush and Matthews rifled a shot from the top of the left circle that Vasilevskiy reacted quickly to fight off with his blocker.

The Lightning also played more stout defense in front of Vasilevskiy, getting into Toronto’s shooting lanes and keeping it from taking away his vision in front of the net. Going back to overtime of Game 6, the Lightning had 32 blocked shots over their final four periods against the Leafs.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), top, blocks a shot on goal as Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot (15) attempts to deflect the puck while Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) looks on during the first period of Game 4.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), top, blocks a shot on goal as Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot (15) attempts to deflect the puck while Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) looks on during the first period of Game 4. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Vasilevskiy said he expects to see much of the same against the Panthers, another team with tons of offensive skill. Vasilevskiy has seen a lot of Florida, and the Panthers have seen more success against him than most. Dating back to the beginning of the 2020-21 season, Vasilevskiy has a 3.00 goals-against average and .914 save percentage against them.

“Huge challenge, obviously, same as Toronto, just super-talented in front and a high-scoring team,” Vasilevskiy said. “It’ll be a big challenge for us. I thought we were pretty good against Toronto, even though they still scored a lot. Going to have to play D, I guess, more. I’ll have to step up, as well.

“As you saw against Toronto, many goals were scored because I couldn’t see anything. I’m pretty sure that was the game plan for them, to get in front. They did a pretty good job of it. Blocking shots from our guys is such a huge help for me. That’s why we gave up just one goal in Game 7. We have to keep doing that.”

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