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A guy wearing a mask can steal the Stanley Cup for the Lightning

John Romano | After a rough start, Andrei Vasilevskiy showed you why he could be the difference against Colorado.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) moves to cover the puck as Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman (77) pushes Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin (13) from the crease during the second period Wednesday in Denver.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) moves to cover the puck as Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman (77) pushes Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin (13) from the crease during the second period Wednesday in Denver. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 16|Updated Jun. 16

DENVER — Let’s consider all the possible reactions to another Game 1 loss for the Lightning.

Frustrated? For sure. The Lightning fought from two goals behind and nearly pulled off a stunning comeback before losing to Colorado 4-3 in overtime in the opener of the Stanley Cup final.

Angry? I suppose. A team with this much talent and experience should not commit the number of penalties and needless mistakes that led to such a big hole.

Bewildered? Yeah, probably. This makes three Game 1 losses in four tries. The Lightning have been outscored a combined 16-9 in the opening games of a series this postseason and have then gone on to pound teams 46-29 in every other game.

Discouraged? No, absolutely not. And here’s why:

For two periods, you could see a path to victory. You could see a roadmap to a third consecutive Stanley Cup championship. You could see Andrei Vasilevskiy looking like the best player on the ice.

That doesn’t guarantee anything. Colorado is an explosive team and is entirely capable of winning this series in a rout. And, to be honest, Vasilevskiy contributed heavily to Tampa Bay’s first-period deficit. So there is a scenario where, a year after winning the Conn Smythe, he comes up short in 2022.

But, bottom line, if the Lightning are going to win, it will be because Vasilevskiy re-establishes himself as the best goaltender on the planet.

“Vasy is obviously a difference-maker. He’s the best goalie in the world, and he’s our best player,” said defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who scored the tying goal in the second period. “He’s a difference-maker in the sense that he can win games by himself.

“He almost did it tonight.”

What the Lightning discovered on Wednesday night is that they can skate with the Avalanche. They may not be quite as quick, or quite as explosive, but they’re savvy, skilled and versatile enough to knock Colorado off its game. After weathering the first 17 minutes of action, the Lightning were Colorado’s equal.

It may not be that way in every game going forward, but the Lightning now know they are capable of handling the Avs in a 200-foot game.

Which means, as Sergachev said, that Vasilevskiy can be the difference.

There were stretches where he was absolutely brilliant in Game 1. He was moving from side to side in the net to stop shots, he was using his stick to poke the puck away from a skater’s control, he was flicking his glove to snatch screaming shots out of the air.

The problem is it took him 20 minutes to get to that point. And, by then, he had given up three goals in the first period for the first time in more than 90 postseason starts.

Barely three minutes into the game, Valeri Nichushkin sent a wrister from an odd angle that appeared to catch Vasilevskiy by surprise. He barely moved a muscle until the puck flew past him and clanked off the far goal post. It almost felt like an omen for what was to come.

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Four minutes later, Colorado got on the board when Vasilevskiy could not keep a Mikko Rantanen shot in front of him and Gabriel Landeskog had an easy tap-in across the goal line.

And if that first goal was shaky, the second was downright uncharacteristic.

A Hedman pass along the boards in the defensive end was picked off by the Avs and Nichushkin quickly fired a shot through the five-hole on Vasilevskiy.

“I thought he was dialed in,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “With the first (goal) there was a moving screen. That was a tough one for him. The second one? Maybe. But I thought he was probably our best player.”

Cooper was probably being a little generous. He knows Vasilevskiy can be the difference between a historic three-peat and a summer of regret, and there’s no sense in wounding his goaltender’s psyche.

But the truth is, Vasilevskiy has only been intermittently great this postseason. He struggled a bit against Toronto and was outplayed by Igor Shesterkin for much of the New York series. It’s probably unreasonable to expect him to be otherworldly every time he steps on the ice, but that’s how good he can be.

“Our goalie is the best goalie in the world,” Pat Maroon said, when asked if Vasilevskiy had an off night.

Maroon may be right. And by the end of the month, we may all be shaking our heads in agreement. For long stretches of Game 1, Vasilevskiy showed us how good he can be.

Eleven days from now, if Andrei Vasilevskiy has reestablished his claim as the world’s best goaltender, the Lightning will be lifting the Stanley Cup for a third time.

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

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