While Anton Khudobin has captured the hockey world’s attention and adulation over the past few weeks, Andrei Vasilevskiy has quietly been powering his own team’s run to the Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay’s starter has chosen a strange year to shake off his postseason jitters, but his stellar performances between the pipes couldn’t be coming at a better time. The Lightning have met their match in the Stanley Cup Final, as the Dallas Stars took Game 1 in decisive fashion before nearly rallying to steal Monday night’s contest too. Vasilevskiy stopped 27 of Dallas’ 29 shots and ultimately represented the difference between a 1-1 deadlock and a daunting 2-0 hole.
At first blush, it would appear Tampa Bay rebounded nicely from its disappointing Game 1 showing. It controlled 54.0% of the scoring chances and 57.9% of the high-danger opportunities at 5-on-5. However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Stars gifted the Lightning three power plays and two goals on the man advantage in the first period. Outside of some opportunism on special teams, Tampa Bay looked uncomfortable for a fair portion of Monday’s affair. It struggled with Dallas’ transition game, and once the Stars began mounting their comeback, the Lightning nearly fell apart at the seams.
Not even one minute into the opening frame, their nerves manifested themselves:
Jamie Benn angles his dump-in to buy time for a line change and Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta, who was suiting up for only his second game of the playoffs, gets his stick lifted by Jason Dickinson on a simple recovery. As a result, the Stars test Vasilevskiy twice in tight for free.
Roughly five minutes later, Dallas shifts from defense to offense too quickly for Tampa Bay to settle into its posture. Roope Hintz bears down on the Lightning’s cage but can’t beat their netminder high stick side:
That was a recurring pattern throughout the night: Though the Stars didn’t dominate proceedings by any stretch, when they did find some space, it translated to a glorious chance that forced Vasilevskiy to stand tall—literally. Hintz couldn’t possibly pull the trigger from a more dangerous area on this sequence, but the 6’3”, 216-pound goaltender offers him no daylight whatsoever.
When he’s on his game, his frame and positioning create a truly imposing presence in the crease. He makes it seem easy.
Midway through the second period, Dallas’ speed once again gives Tampa Bay fits. Andrew Cogliano breaks in alone and Vasilevskiy brushes his bid aside without breaking a sweat:
That same composure surfaced when Joe Pavelski was granted a breakaway with the score at 3-1:
Vasilevskiy’s glove is placed perfectly and he squeezes his pads just enough to repel the rebound too. The Russian was so dialed in during Game 2 that massive chances looked…pedestrian. On Dallas’ last gasp of the night with about a minute left in regulation, he swallows Benn’s shot from deep in the slot due to great tracking, angles and rebound control:
The Stars’ captain never had a hope of beating him there.
Sure, Tampa Bay generated more opportunities on Monday night, but Dallas had the advantage in quality. The Stars, who have developed a habit of battling from behind, often attacked from prime real estate. It wasn’t a sustained bombardment but a series of rapid-fire bursts that would have found paydirt against most teams.
Thankfully for Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy wasn’t having any of it. Though the 26-year-old has ranked among the very finest goaltenders in the league for a few seasons now, there have been persistent questions surrounding his big-game ability.
He appears to be answering those. He’s sporting a 1.88 GAA and 92.9 SV% in the playoffs. Of the 12 goaltenders who have played at least 500 minutes this summer, he sits third in goals saved above average per 60 minutes. No netminder has a shorter average goal distance either. In other words, Vasilevskiy is only conceding when the opponent can get right in his face for opportunities of the highest order.
In Game 2, both of Dallas’ goals materialized at Tampa Bay’s front door: Pavelski deflected a point shot past Vasilevskiy on the power play and John Klingberg delivered Mattias Janmark a gorgeous cross-crease pass for his first tally of the postseason. Nothing else got by the Lightning’s workhorse.
You can’t ask for much more than that from your goaltender.
Despite a relatively shaky performance, Tampa Bay’s outlook is improving by the minute. Brayden Point and Victor Hedman looked more like themselves on Monday night. Injured captain Steven Stamkos may even return to the fray before the end of the Stanley Cup Final, which should energize a lousy second line and provide the power play with another deadly shooting threat.
The most promising development for the Lightning, however, is occurring in the crease. Vasilevskiy is putting his postseason setbacks in the rear-view mirror and proving that he can propel his club to the promised land.