TAMPA — If faith can win you a hockey game, then the Lightning may have already pulled even in the Stanley Cup final.
If trust can assuage your fears, then another deficit against another hungry team doesn’t seem so threatening.
If believing in your goaltender is a virtue, then the Lightning appear to be blessed.
Three games into the championship series, and the Colorado Avalanche have almost every advantage. They’ve won twice, they’ve played better on special teams and they still have home-ice advantage.
But do they believe in their goaltenders?
Current evidence would suggest otherwise. Five goals into Monday night’s 6-2 loss and Avs coach Jared Bednar pulled starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper. This was barely 48 hours after a shutout in Game 2.
When asked on Tuesday whether he would follow his usual routine of returning to Kuemper as the starter after being relieved by Pavel Franouz, Bednar played coy.
“That’s one possibility,” he said.
And there you have it. The greatest difference between the two best teams in the NHL.
The Lightning not only have full faith in goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, they happily acknowledge he is the difference between being a Stanley Cup contender and early summer tee times.
“We can learn a lot from him, from his mental toughness,” defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. “He’s always there. He’s always making those crazy saves. You know, sometimes we play bad (in front) of him but we’re trying to be like him. We’re trying to show up every night and play hard so he’s happy. We’re trying to keep him happy.”
Sergachev paused and grinned.
“But, really, he’s the mentally toughest guy I’ve ever been around.”
Compare how each coach has reacted to a goal-scoring meltdown early in the series. Bednar pulled Kuemper halfway through the second period after five goals. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he never even considered pulling Vasilevskiy when he gave up seven goals in Game 2.
That doesn’t mean Vasilevskiy has been flawless in the series. It doesn’t even mean he’s been consistently great. But the potential for brilliance is there every time Vasilevskiy stands in the crease, and the Lightning are cognizant of the fragility of a goaltender’s ego and confidence.
Being able to let go of the past is a requisite part of the position, and Cooper said it is what allowed Vasilevskiy to go from a career-worst nightmare on Saturday to his 62nd postseason victory on Monday.
“His mental growth has been phenomenal over the last 6-7 years,” Cooper said. “I think that type of loss in 2014 or ‘15 — the losses are painful — but would have stuck with him longer. And that’s what makes the good ones, great. The goalie, he’s the last line of defense. Anytime a goal goes in, everybody’s looking at him. To be able to have the ability to change and turn the page?
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“I think that has been the gift that has made him great.”
This hasn’t been the best postseason for Vasilevskiy. It hasn’t been nearly as good as 2021 when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Sandwiched around a stellar series against Florida, he has had shaky moments in the opening games against Toronto, New York and Colorado.
After posting a 1.90 goals-against average in both the 2020 and 2021 postseasons, Vasilevskiy has given up 2.57 goals per game this summer. Now, a lot of that is due to lesser defensive performances in front of him, as well as higher-quality opponents, but Vasilevskiy shoulders responsibility, too.
Yet, the numbers do not tell the entire story. Vasilevskiy has come up with hard-to-believe saves at critical moments that have altered the direction of games.
On Monday night, the Lightning had opened up a two-goal lead for the first time in the series when the Avalanche began an expected push. Mikko Rantanen sent a hard wrister to Vasilevskiy’s left and the rebound went to the opposite circle where J.T. Compher was standing all alone.
Unable to slide over in time, Vasilevskiy instead sprawled into a complete split and stopped Compher’s shot with his right leg between his pad and skate.
“It’s one of those plays where you think, when it lands on his stick, that it’s almost a guaranteed goal,” said forward Alex Killorn. “So momentum-wise it was huge for us.”
If you said Colorado’s offense has been far superior to Tampa Bay in the series, I wouldn’t disagree. If you said the Avalanche have been on the attack more than the Lightning, I think the numbers would back you up.
But the difference in goaltenders came into play in Game 3 when the Lightning finally began to pepper Kuemper with shots. And the difference going forward could very well be the faith the Lightning have in their guy in the net.
“He’s a special player that doesn’t come around very often,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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