Success follows for Lightning when Andrei Vasilevskiy is clutch late

Tampa Bay’s victory over the Hurricanes on Tuesday night is certainly encouraging as the postseason nears.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy blocks the shot of the Hurricanes' Jesper Fast during the third period Tuesday night.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy blocks the shot of the Hurricanes' Jesper Fast during the third period Tuesday night. [ KARL B DEBLAKER | AP ]
Published March 29|Updated March 30

RALEIGH, N.C. — If the regular season is a dress rehearsal for the playoffs, as Lightning coach Jon Cooper often describes it, Tampa Bay’s 4-0 road win over Carolina on Tuesday night was the kind of performance the Lightning want to replicate come the postseason.

From the way the Lightning played a physical, blue-collar game and quieted a hostile PNC Arena crowd, the atmosphere replicated the intensity of the postseason.

Tuesday also served as a reminder that if you give goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy a chance, he will come through in the clutch. Give him a lead late, protect the front of the net and he’s the greatest X factor any team can possess in the playoffs.

“To not give (a goal) up, ‘Vasy’ obviously had some to do with that,” Cooper said. “But it was never like he was under siege at all during the game.”

In the annual players association players poll released last week, 52.3% of the 626 surveyed picked Vasilevskiy as the goaltender they would most want if they needed to win one game.

Whether Tuesday’s shutout win was Vasilevskiy’s best performance of the season can be debated. He stood on his head in a 45-save shutout win in Detroit last month. He had 45 saves in December against the Rangers and outlasted reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin in a six-round shootout. Some of his most jaw-dropping saves have come in losses.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is congratulated after the team's win over the Hurricanes.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is congratulated after the team's win over the Hurricanes. [ KARL B DEBLAKER | AP ]

But Tuesday’s game was a blueprint for how the Lightning have to protect Vasilevskiy in the postseason to win.

No one statistic is perfect, but PDO is one used to assess a team’s all-around game. It comes from adding shooting percentage and save percentage at 5-on-5 play, and the Lightning’s PDO of 1.190 on Tuesday was their best through 75 games. Having a 1.000 save percentage plays a major factor in determining that number, but against a Carolina team that allows the fewest shots per game in the league, Tampa Bay capitalized on the few opportunities it had by scoring four goals on 21 shots.

But more than that, the Lightning limited the Hurricanes’ scoring chances, won puck battles, denied second-chance shot attempts and cleared the front of the net of traffic, all a result of playing a more physical game. They followed a 35-hit night against Boston with a 28-hit game against Carolina.

Vasilevskiy stopped all eight shots on goal he saw in the first period to help keep the game goalless. The Hurricanes had a few looks from in close but nothing that Vasilevskiy couldn’t track, and he stopped forward Jordan Martinook’s shot on a breakaway with his stick. But the Lightning showed patience in their passing to limit turnovers and odd-man rushes.

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In the second period, the Lightning gave Vasilevskiy a two-goal lead on a pair of grimy goals, first a finesse attempt from below the left circle by Steven Stamkos that slid under goalie Pyotr Kochetkov’s right pad and Brayden Point’s bank shot off Kochetkov’s back into the net. The Lightning had just three 5-on-5 shots on goal in the second but scored on two. More important, they allowed only three 5-on-5 scoring chances in the period.

Much like he has done in so many playoff clinchers over the past three postseasons, Vasilevskiy locked down in the third with 14 saves. He stopped two high-danger chances in close as the Lightning opened the period on the penalty kill for the first 62 seconds. Clinging to a two-goal lead with 14 minutes left, Vasilevskiy defended a 3-on-2 rush where Carolina forward Jack Drury found defenseman Jalen Chatfield open by the back post, but Vasilevskiy reached back to stop the puck, and Nick Perbix was there to take the puck out of danger.

The Lightning added two goals after that.

“If we play like that and we limit a team’s overall scoring chances, we’re going to have a good chance to win, especially when we’ve got Vasy in net,” Stamkos said. “So (Tuesday) was a good example of that. That’s what playoff hockey is about, and that’s what we’ve been really good the last three years (at), getting a lead and not just hanging on by a thread but keep pushing.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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