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If Lightning are to survive, Andrei Vasilevskiy needs to be the difference

John Romano | Tampa Bay’s goaltender was better in Game 3, but he’s been outperformed by New York’s Igor Shesterkin in the Eastern Conference final.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy keeps a close eye on the puck in the second period of Game 3 against the Rangers on Sunday.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy keeps a close eye on the puck in the second period of Game 3 against the Rangers on Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 6

TAMPA — Before the comeback, the applause, the game-winner and the collective sigh of relief, Andrei Vasilevskiy had a moment on Sunday. Several moments, in fact.

It was a little more than midway through the first period of Game 3 and neither the Lightning nor the Rangers had yet to score.

New York’s Tyler Motte got a loose puck behind the Tampa Bay net and whipped a pass to Barclay Goodrow, who was standing all alone about 16 feet in front of Vasilevskiy. Goodrow’s point-blank shot went to the bottom left corner, and Vasilevskiy extended his leg to block it.

The rebound bounced straight ahead where Motte showed up to fire a second shot from nearly the same spot. Vasilevskiy made an almost identical save, except this time the puck trickled to his left. Ryan Reaves leapt to take a shot at the bottom of the net where Vasilevskiy stopped it with his skate.

Six seconds, three shots, all within 20 feet.

The sequence did not win the game for the Lightning, but it may have accomplished something nearly as important. It suggested Vasilevskiy was all the way back from a momentary malaise.

And that provides hope that the Lightning might just pull off this comeback.

Because Tampa Bay is not going to win three of the next four games if Vasilevskiy does not elevate his level of play. At the very least, he’s got to be as good as he was in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 win in Game 3.

The Lightning are not as deep as they were in the last two postseasons, which makes Andrei Vasilevskiy even more vital to their success.
The Lightning are not as deep as they were in the last two postseasons, which makes Andrei Vasilevskiy even more vital to their success. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

That’s not to say the reigning Conn Smythe winner was responsible for the Lightning losing Games 1 and 2. There was more than enough shortcomings around the ice to explain Tampa Bay’s first postseason losing streak in three years.

But advanced analytics sites MoneyPuck and Natural Stat Trick both suggested that Vasilevskiy allowed more goals than expected based on the shots he saw in the first two games of the series. That’s unusual enough for Vasilevskiy in the playoffs, but it was even more glaring when you consider what we were seeing at the other end of the ice.

Even if you believe Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender on the planet, New York’s Igor Shesterkin was the best goaltender in the NHL throughout the course of the regular season. Then, as if to prove it was no fluke, he outplayed Vasy in Games 1 and 2.

If you want to be a stickler, you might even argue Shesterkin was also better in Game 3 when he faced 52 shots on goal.

And that’s what makes Vasilevskiy’s performance in Game 3 almost as important as the results on the scoreboard because it bodes well for the coming days.

Maybe the nine-day break after his brilliant performance against Florida in the second round had dulled Vasilevskiy’s edge, but the Lightning absolutely need him at his best right now.

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When Lightning coach Jon Cooper was asked in New York what it was that allowed Vasilevskiy to go so long without back-to-back losses in the postseason, his answer was succinct.

“Intensity? Work ethic? He’s top of the list in that regard,” Cooper said. “But as I said before, our team takes losses personally, but I would say the goalie really takes it personal. Hence, that’s probably why he’s so good bouncing back after games when we’re on the short end.”

The Lightning are not as deep as they were the past two playoff runs, and their depth is challenged even more by Brayden Point’s continued absence. That means their margin for error is smaller and, subsequently, the pressure on Vasilevskiy is as high as it has ever been in the postseason.

Corey Perry was talking the other day about what makes the Lightning so special in the postseason and he began ticking off a list that included blocking shots, keeping the front of the net clear, finishing hits and controlling the puck. At this point in the season doesn’t every team do that, I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “but then you add the goaltender component on this team.”

That’s what Vasilevskiy is. He’s the difference-maker. He can rescue an entire roster by erasing the mistakes of his teammates in front of him. It’s a lot to ask of one player, but it’s what we’ve come to expect of Vasilevskiy in recent years.

And if the Lightning want to survive for another Stanley Cup final, it’s undoubtedly what we’re going to need to see in the next week or so.

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

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