TAMPA — Lightning coach Jon Cooper knew early that goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was going to have a special night Monday against the Panthers with a second-round playoff series sweep at stake.
And the way Vasilevskiy has been playing of late, it almost seemed destined to be his night as the Lightning looked to close out a Panthers team that was the league’s best in the regular season.
“(Monday), he wasn’t letting anything in,” Cooper said.
The Lightning know all too well that Presidents’ Trophies are fleeting accomplishments. It’s Stanley Cups that make legacies, and you get those by playing stellar defense and getting exemplary goaltending.
Game 4 might have been Vasilevskiy’s best playoff performance yet. He stopped all 49 shots on goal he faced and the Lightning got a huge third-period goal from Pat Maroon after two previous goals had been disallowed for a 2-0 win that sent them to the league’s final four for the third straight season.
“We didn’t want to waste that game that (Vasilevskiy) played,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We knew (the Panthers) were going to push, and they did, and they played outstanding. They threw a lot of pucks on net, and there he was, ‘Vasy,’ like he always is in those big games.”
The Lightning, in their sixth final four in the past eight seasons, are halfway to becoming the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s. The Lightning will face either the Hurricanes or Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.
The Lightning’s sweep of the Panthers marked their 10th straight playoff series win, a feat done only three other times. The Islanders won 19 straight from 1980-84, and the Canadiens won 13 from 1976-80 and 10 from 1956-60.
“We want 12 straight (series wins),” Stamkos said, referring to how many the Lightning will have to win to capture a third straight Stanley Cup.
“But when you kind of take a step back and put things into perspective, especially in the salary-cap world that we’re in and the parity in our league, it’s a very, very special group (the Lightning have), and another pretty cool thing is that it’s a different group (from the past two Cup winners).”
Despite being down 3-0 in the series, a Panthers team that scored the most goals of any team in the salary-cap era in the regular season was not going out quietly. Florida outshot Tampa Bay 18-3 in the first period and had 82 shot attempts on the night.
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The Lightning sent the league’s best team packing by protecting their net. They averaged nearly 20 blocked shots a game in the series, but the Panthers made Vasilevskiy really work Monday.
“(The Lightning) really, really wanted to block shots, and they block a lot of them,” said Panthers center Aleksander Barkov. “And then if something gets through, Vasilevsky makes that first save and they didn’t let us go for rebounds. They box out really well. They play a really tight game.”
Vasilevskiy has recorded shutouts in six of his last seven series-clinching games in the playoffs. He has allowed only one goal over that stretch, in Game 7 of the Lightning’s first-round series win over the Maple Leafs this year. His six career series-clinching shutouts are the most in NHL history, passing the five by Chris Osgood and Clint Benedict.
“I think just the way the whole team is playing in those games (and) the whole series, just constant blocked shots, sacrifices and boys clearly breaking bones to stop the puck, just such a great effort by everybody on our team, and it’s obviously not just me,” Vasilevskiy said.
“I’m just trying to do my job as best as I can. My job is to just give our boys a chance to win.”
Vasilevskiy held a team that averaged 4.11 goals a game in the regular season to three goals in the series. And dating to the third period of Game 6 against Toronto, Vasilevskiy has allowed just four goals in his past 14 periods, stopping 194 of 198 shots for a .980 save percentage.
“I think (Monday’s) workload was a little bit much in the sense that (the Panthers) did get a lot of shots,” forward Alex Killorn said. “They played well. We’ll give them credit. But whenever you have (Vasilevskiy), you always have a chance.
“I think we’re getting better. As the Toronto series went on, we got better. We got a little bit better against Florida. You know, maybe not our best game (Monday), but like I said, when you have (Vasilevskiy), you always have a chance.”
The Lightning had two goals disallowed in the second period following successful Florida challenges.
A Killorn goal was negated when a video review showed that the puck hit the netting before he scored. Then Anthony Cirelli’s hand pass in the faceoff circle wiped Nikita Kucherov’s goal off the scoreboard.
Maroon, however, was in the right place at the right time, batting a puck out of the air and past Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky 6:16 into the third. Maroon and his teammates immediately looked to the video board to make sure the goal was good.
“(The puck) kind of took a weird bounce, and I was kind of following the puck and got a nice little stick on it, a nice little backspin on it, and it went in,” Maroon said.
Ondrej Palat added an empty-netter with 23 seconds left in regulation.
Cooper was the first to say you don’t beat a team of Florida’s caliber the way the Lightning did without getting some bounces. And the Panthers hit some posts Monday, including a Carter Verhaeghe shot that hit off the near post, with the puck going across the paint, off the far post and out.
“Trust me, the guys are exhausted, and it was only a four-game series,” Cooper said. “I don’t want anybody sitting here saying that Tampa is rolling through this. This was a tough, tough series.
“Let’s be honest. If you’re going to take a team like this out, there are going to be games where you need your goaltender, and clearly (Vasilevskiy) was the first, second and third star (Monday). He’s been in the zone here now since the end of that Toronto series.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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