TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy wants to be a workhorse, his instinct is to push harder, and he’s his own toughest critic. But if there’s any good that might come from the Lightning’s early exit this postseason, it’s their best player’s realization that he might have to perfect the skill of pulling back.
Vasilevskiy is still the top goalie on the planet and the No. 1 reason optimism remains in the Lightning locker room that there are better days ahead after their first-round ouster from the playoffs.
But after all the talk of how much hockey the Lightning’s star goaltender has played over the past four seasons, Vasilevskiy himself admitted during Tuesday’s end-of-season interviews that his body began to betray him this season. He entered the season having played 71 games over the past three postseasons and had little time to recover due to the Lightning’s deep playoff runs.
“It was something I’ve never experienced before,” Vasilevskiy said. “Probably the first 30-35 games, I felt as usual, but then — I don’t know — just me and my body weren’t on the same page, I guess. All (these) small injuries came out at the same time.
“My mistake was that I didn’t really pay attention to recovery. So, I kind of kept pushing myself to the limit. Working out and working hard in practice. ... It wasn’t like something major to skip any games, but at the same time it was something that I’ve faced for the first time in my career.
“You saw the result,” Vasilevskiy continued. “But I’m pretty positive that this will be a great experience for me. I’ll be smarter next season about it, and now I know what I’ll have to change during the offseason, during the season, just to stay more fresh.”
Aside from his record, Vasilevskiy’s numbers in his first 35 games of the season and his last 25 aren’t much different. He was 22-12-1 with a .918 save percentage and 2.51 goals-against average after 35 starts, then 12-10-3 with a .911 save percentage and 2.84 goals-against after that.
His teammates certainly didn’t see a dropoff.
“He was the best goalie in the league, as always,” said defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. “He’s not playing 20-25 minutes a night. He’s playing a full 60 and sometimes 100 minutes with overtime. So it takes a toll. It’s harder on goalies, and especially mentally.
“But I don’t think I noticed anything different. I actually thought he was more chill this year. Obviously, sometimes you’ve seen him break his sticks and stuff. It’s normal. He wants to win, he’s a competitor. But I thought he was a little bit more relaxed.”
Vasilevskiy will be 29 when next season begins, and by that age most goaltenders already have been forced to reinvent themselves. Goaltenders coach Frantz Jean earlier this season spoke about the maturity Vasilevskiy showed veering from his strict preparation routine to prioritize more rest. Entering the postseason, Vasilevskiy — who didn’t play three of the last four regular-season games — spoke about the importance of getting into the weight room to feel stronger heading into the postseason.
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Vasilevskiy allowed 19 goals over the first four games against Toronto but had his best two games in the final two games of the series, allowing just four goals combined over Games 5 and 6.
“I thought he was fabulous for us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Because we lost out, you can’t sit here and point fingers. It’s all of us. Will I sit here and say no goaltender has played as much as he has in so many pressure games in the biggest spotlight over the last 36 months than that kid, so at some point, will it take a toll? I’m sure it does.
“I still think if we threw all 32 goalies out there and every GM got to pick one, I’m pretty sure they’d be taking him one or two. So, he’s probably being a little hard on himself and, saying that, he needs rest, too. Like, he legitimately needs rest, and we’re gonna get it now. So you take few months off, his body will heal. He’s still a young man. He keeps himself in terrific shape, but the mind’s got to heal, too. And I think that’ll be the best part for him.”
Though he’d prefer to still be playing, Vasilevskiy not only embraces the rest a longer offseason brings, he knows he needs it.
“The recovery part is the big thing for me next season,” Vasilevskiy said. “I have to focus on that more. It’s something I didn’t have this season, because the last few years I felt good and I didn’t feel like I needed that. (I thought), I’m a workhorse, I can play as many games as I want and I’ll still be fine. But this season really showed me that I have to be smart about it. If I want to be a workhorse, I have to recover well as a workhorse as well.”
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