TAMPA — By its very nature, excellence is supposed to be rare. Glory is meant to be uncommon.
Yet, around here, it is an expected part of the landscape.
You say Victor Hedman had a turnover in the neutral zone and Florida’s Maxim Mamin is racing straight at the Lightning goal with open ice in front of him?
No problem, Vasy will stop him.
You say the back door is wide open for Sam Reinhart after a cross-ice pass from Sam Bennett?
Don’t worry, Vasy will get it.
Pardon me for asking, but have we grown immune to the wonder of Andrei Vasilevskiy? Have we become spoiled by his otherworldly reflexes and indescribable instincts?
Is it really fair to expect greatness as the base level of performance?
Apparently, not when it comes to Tampa Bay’s goaltender. The cheering starts early at Amalie Arena with Vasilevskiy getting the loudest ovation when players are introduced. And the chanting of his name begins in earnest midway through the first period when he makes a pair of saves in a scoreless game.
“He makes the stop when you need it,” said Lightning forward Nick Paul. “You know, a tight game, he makes it somehow and it just puts the wind in our sail.”
That, it did. Although Tampa Bay eventually romped to a 5-1 victory in Game 3 against Florida on Sunday, the Lightning never had more than a one-goal lead through the first 30 minutes.
And there are reasons other than Vasilevskiy, for sure. The Lightning blocked another 19 shots, for instance. They took care of the puck around the blue line and the penalty kill was mostly stellar.
But think of it this way:
The Panthers were the highest-scoring team the NHL had seen since the Mario Lemieux/Jaromir Jagr Penguins of 1996, yet Vasilevskiy has held them to one goal in three consecutive games. Florida had been held to one goal only three times in the entire regular season.
If you need a more visual depiction, it would look like this: 3-of-82 for the entire NHL and 3-of-3 for Vasy in the playoffs. So, yeah, fair to say the 2021 Conn Smythe winner is back in postseason form.
Goaltending coach Frantz Jean goes out of his way to point out how everyone in front of Vasilevskiy has upped their game since the middle of the Toronto series. It is not just the goaltender who is responsible for Florida’s worst offense stretch in more than a year.
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And yet …
“He comes ready to compete and play every day during the season, but during the playoffs it stands out even more,” Jean said. “The pressure is higher and the stage is bigger.
“He cares, he wants to be the best and he works extremely hard every day to maintain that level of play. People might think it’s easy because you’re talented, but it’s not. It demands a tremendous commitment to your craft. That’s the mentality that great players have. They care, and they want to be the best.”
This is sort of the cross that Vasilevskiy carries. He tied for the league lead in wins, he was in the top 10 in both goals-against average and goals saved above average, and it was considered a down year for him. He wasn’t a Vezina Trophy finalist for the first time since he was a 22-year-old in 2017.
Vasilevskiy’s save percentage of .916 was a tick below his previous worst season as a full-time starter in the NHL, and he had a career-high 18 losses.
And all of that added up to nothing once the playoffs began.
While he gave up more goals than usual in the first-round series against Toronto, that was largely blamed on the team’s failure to stick to its normal playoff formula.
Once the defense got serious against the Maple Leafs, the results have looked much like the past two seasons in the playoffs. Vasy has gone from a 3.83 goals-against average in the first six playoff games to a 1.00 in the next four.
“As goaltenders, our job is to stop the puck. (Defensemen) have a job to do and forwards have a job to do, and sometimes you don’t have your A-game as a team where everything syncs together,” Jean said. “The key is to find it as early as possible in the playoffs, to find that synergy between all components of the team to play really good playoff hockey.”
It gets lost in the disparity of the final score, but the breakaways and rushes that Florida had in the first period on Sunday could have turned out differently without Vasilevskiy in the net. And if those goals go in, the game looks different and, ultimately, the series does, too.
“Those go overlooked throughout the game because we eventually get the lead, But who knows where that (score) is if any of those go in,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Thankfully, Vasy is there to make the saves.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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