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If Lightning are to survive, Vasilevskiy needs to be star we remember

John Romano | He’s not the reason Toronto is scoring five goals a night, but the 2021 Conn Smythe winner has yet to dazzle in the net.
 
Andrei Vasilevskiy makes his way down the tunnel for warmups prior to Game 4 Monday at Amalie Arena. The Lightning goaltender hasn't necessarily played poorly in the series, but he hasn't stolen a game yet, either.
Andrei Vasilevskiy makes his way down the tunnel for warmups prior to Game 4 Monday at Amalie Arena. The Lightning goaltender hasn't necessarily played poorly in the series, but he hasn't stolen a game yet, either. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 25, 2023

TAMPA — Let’s get this straight: Andrei Vasilevskiy is not responsible for the Game 4 loss. Or Game 3, for that matter.

The Lightning defense has allowed Toronto to operate too freely in front of the net. There have been too many bodies screening Tampa Bay’s goaltender, too many deflections thwarting him. It’s more than just Vasilevskiy’s goals-against average that has the Lightning on the exit ramp to doom.

On the other hand, if the Lightning fail to pull off a mini-miracle in the next three games against Toronto, this will feel like a playoff series that Vasilevskiy could have singlehandedly won.

Maybe that sounds contradictory, so let me explain.

The past two seasons have shown there isn’t a whole lot of difference in the level of talent between Tampa Bay and Toronto. The Maple Leafs have Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. The Lightning have Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. The Leafs have John Tavares. The Lightning have Steven Stamkos. The Leafs have Morgan Rielly. The Lightning have Victor Hedman. Yes, Tampa Bay’s depth has dissipated and, yes, Ryan O’Reilly has changed the dynamic in Toronto but, all in all, these are similar teams.

Except in the net.

Vasilevskiy is Tampa Bay’s rainmaker. The Conn Smythe winner. The guy who closes the deal. The best goaltender in the NHL. This was not supposed to be a showdown between Vasilevskiy and Toronto goalie Ilya Samsonov, because it looked to be such a mismatch. Samsonov had a 1-6 playoff record and little acclaim. Vasilevskiy had two Stanley Cups and a road map to the Hall of Fame.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) looks back as the game-winning goal by Toronto Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot (15) hits the back of net in overtime of Game 4.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) looks back as the game-winning goal by Toronto Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot (15) hits the back of net in overtime of Game 4. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

And, yet, there is an argument to be made that Samsonov has outplayed Vasilevskiy. At the very least, Vasy has failed to steal a game for Tampa Bay in the series.

There’s a relatively new hockey statistic called goals saved above average (GSAA) or above expectation. It’s calculated differently by different outlets, but it basically charts the number of shots faced by a goaltender and measures that versus the number of scores. Some versions just use league averages in the calculation, and some judge the quality of the shot. In other words, some calculations may not have any subjectivity, good or bad, and others might have an argumentative quality.

In hockeyreference.com’s calculation, Vasilevskiy has the worst GSAA in the 2023 playoffs. In naturalstattrick.com, he is second-worst.

Again, there is an interpretive quality to those stats, so they shouldn’t be quoted like scripture, but you get the idea. Basically, it says there is at least a reason to wonder about Vasilevskiy’s performance against Toronto.

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Lightning coach Jon Cooper is not buying it. At all.

“What’s been wrong with Vasilevskiy’s performance?” Cooper said on Tuesday. “If I look through this series, the Marner goal in Game 2, for sure (he) wants to have back. But after that? Realistically, what are we saying he’s done wrong other than make all the saves he’s supposed to?

“Look at (Monday) night, I don’t know who is stopping the (Noel) Acciari tip. Nobody is stopping that. And who is stopping the Matthews tip? Nobody is stopping that. The Rielly goal, the third one, we come off our check and completely screen our goalie. And the winning goal — was that (Alexander) Kerfoot? — like, who is stopping that? No goalie in the league. Take any goalie, take the best goalies in the history of the game, they’re not stopping any of those.”

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) blocks a shot on goal during the second period of Game 4.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) blocks a shot on goal during the second period of Game 4. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It’s absolutely true that three of the five goals scored by Toronto in Game 4 came off deflections. So did one of the four goals in Game 3. There is no reasonable way you can blame Vasilevskiy for any of those scores.

“I think the onus is on the guys in front of him to try and be a little bit better,” Cooper said. “In the end, give Toronto credit for some of the plays they’re making.

“It’s something we’ve got to be better at and, hopefully, Toronto digresses a little bit in that department.”

So maybe I’m setting the bar too high. It’s true that Lightning players and coaches routinely refer to Vasilevskiy as the best goaltender on the planet and he usually does live up to that billing. So maybe we have gotten too spoiled by seeing otherworldly saves on an almost-routine basis.

That’s why, when Rielly flips a wrister past Vasilevskiy from 55 feet away as he did in overtime in Game 3, it feels like a shock. And when he does it again from 53 feet away to tie the score in the third period of Game 4, it’s jarring.

There are often too many moving pieces to definitively say whether a goalie should have made this save or that save, but we’ve grown accustomed to Vasy rescuing the Lightning at big moments, and that hasn’t happened yet against Toronto.

I wouldn’t necessarily say he has played poorly in this series.

But he has not been the best goalie on the planet, either.

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

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