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How Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy has started to find his old self

The star goaltender’s back injury and recovery have been a learning experience.
 
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 9, 2023

NASHVILLE — This certainly wasn’t the start to the season that Andrei Vasilevskiy envisioned, with a back injury that forced him to miss the first two months and watch as the Lightning struggled in his absence.

But the goaltender has tried to find a silver lining: He’s learned some valuable lessons out of this experience, and he hopes to be better for it.

On Thursday morning, a day after his second straight win — a pair of victories in which he stopped 49 of the 50 shots he faced and began to look like vintage Vasilevskiy — he was inside an empty Bridgestone Arena in Nashville working with goaltending coach Frantz Jean and taking shots from the team’s three scratches on the ice.

He will be the first to tell you he’s not yet where he needs to be. He’s cautious in making too much out of his recent wins. But in a season that has tested Vasilevskiy’s patience, he remains remarkably upbeat and committed to showing he’s still the best goaltender in the world.

“I guess it depends on how you look at this situation,” said Vasilevskiy Thursday, ahead of the team’s five-game, 10-day road trip. “You can shape it in a bad way or you can shape it in a good way. So I’ll just say I’ve shaped it in a good way.

“I was able to spend more time with family and take more rest and just focus on different things. And at the same time, I was able to kind of prepare myself for a season even more and hopefully, it’ll help me along the way. ... I think once you get more mature you just see things differently. That helps a lot.”

After offseason weightlifting led to a herniated disc in his lower back, he tried to push through it. Treatment kept him on the ice and the pain subdued. He went into training camp optimistic that the worst was over, but during drills in the team’s first camp practice, he felt pain through his back and legs.

“I knew right away that something’s not right,” he said. “I really couldn’t push hard and it was shooting pain.”

Less than a week later, Vasilevskiy had a microdiscectomy to repair the disc in his back, and the Lightning’s season started without him.

Vasilevskiy said he has quit the power squats and deadlifting that led to his injury. Work in the gym still remains a big part of his routine, but it’s more focused on stretching and stamina, and he strengthens his core via medicine balls and other light equipment. Regardless, it’s a sharp contrast to what Vasilevskiy used to do to prepare.

“I wouldn’t call it easy, but just more controllable,” he said. “It’s less weights, just kind of basically working with my body weight. I weigh 220, so it’s still pretty hard. Now I have to be smarter. I had both surgeries in my career now because of workouts. It’s just stupid to just miss games because I wanted to squat more? It’s silly, very silly.”

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Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) works to make a save against Penguins right wing Bryan Rust (17) during the second period of Wednesday's game.
Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) works to make a save against Penguins right wing Bryan Rust (17) during the second period of Wednesday's game. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

No one promised Vasilevskiy would be back to his normal self immediately, and he received a tough draw in his first games back. He won his first outing, 8-2, in Carolina on the back of the run support he received. He battled the altitude in his second game in Colorado, and struggled tracking the puck in his first game at home against Pittsburgh, allowing four goals in each of those losses.

Despite a game that got out of hand early in Dallas last Saturday, Vasilevskiy felt he turned a corner. It was the first contest in which he felt like he had his legs back.

“There’s no layups in this league, but those three are some big-time teams to play against,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And I thought he fought through it awesome. I think there was some unluckiness to his game, but there’s a little bit of rust. But he would play three exhibition games or whatever in the preseason, so you can just tell by his timing and his command and the net, all those things have been just getting better and better.”

Cooper said the opening minutes of Vasilevskiy’s shutout home win over Dallas was a big moment. The Stars came out blazing with four shots on goal in the first 2:05 of play, but Vasilevskiy fought Dallas off long enough for the Lightning to take a 2-0 lead going into the first intermission.

“Dallas came right out and bang, bang, bang,” Cooper said. “They get these chances and he just looked calm, cool, collected, then we kind of took over from there. … I think the team’s been pretty solid in front of him. But when we’ve broken down, he does what he does.”

“We’re used to seeing him bail us out,” Cooper added. “What I was more concerned with on our team was not playing the game where we needed the goalie to bail us out.”

The focus will remain on Vasilevskiy as he continues to find his form. He is the key to the Lightning’s season. Even with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point off to strong starts, Tampa Bay’s defensive struggles have them in a muddled pack in the Eastern Conference.

Vasilevskiy would like to think that his late start could help him be stronger down the stretch and into a potential playoff run.

“It’s a good thing that we’ve done (the surgery) and now I’m fixed,” he said. “My body’s still healing. Obviously, my legs still aren’t perfect. But just through the work and through all those games, I’ll be able to get back on my health and be at the highest level, I hope.”

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