There are no two ways about it: Andrei Vasilevskiy stole Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
After the Tampa Bay Lightning flipped the script on them in an uninspired 5-1 drudging, the Montreal Canadiens bounced back with renewed focus and sharper execution on Wednesday night. They generated considerably more offense on the rush and tested Tampa Bay’s resolve from start to finish. They owned 56.5% of the scoring chances, 53.8% of the high-danger opportunities and 60.7% of the expected goals at 5-on-5.
But results don’t always play along.
If you can stand tall in the crease and summon a decisive play or two in high-leverage moments, you can defy those expectations and emerge victorious despite never sitting in the driver’s seat.
The Lightning weren’t in rhythm on Wednesday, but they were at least up to that task. After being outskated and out-competed for most of the night, they came through when it mattered most to crush Montreal’s spirits. Tampa Bay’s 26-year-old monster between the pipes played a central role in the affair, repelling 42 of the 43 shots he faced.
It didn’t take long for the Habs to launch their attack. Barely two minutes into the contest, Nick Suzuki breaks in alone only to see Vasilevskiy swat the puck away:
With his teammates struggling to find their groove, he would have to hold down the fort to maintain a 0-0 deadlock. Unfortunately, veteran blueliner Ryan McDonagh seemed eager to sabotage his club, committing a slew of blunders throughout the first period before eventually settling down.
Some of these mistakes would be catastrophic in the regular season—let alone the Stanley Cup Final:
Tampa Bay’s miscues didn’t matter in the end, though. Vasilevskiy was superb for the full 60 minutes, instilling a level of steely confidence in his squad with timely stops and calm puck control. In a series that pits two top-tier goaltenders against each other, the bigger name has been the first to crack. While Carey Price hasn’t lost his team either of the two opening games, he certainly hasn’t stood on his head.
On Wednesday night, Anthony Cirelli claimed first blood on a long, seeing-eye wrister. Price peeks in the wrong direction and the puck squeaks by him stick side:
Montreal would tie the contest on the power play minutes later when a Nick Suzuki pass deflects off McDonagh’s stick and through Vasilevskiy’s legs:
That was the Canadiens’ lone marker in a 3-1 loss. In other words, the Habs have still yet to score a goal in this series that hasn’t gone off a Tampa Bay defender. They’ve yet to outright beat Vasilevskiy on a shot. That’s…discouraging.
It’s not as though they haven’t generated good looks. Particularly in Game 2, Montreal’s system appeared to trouble Tampa Bay. The Canadiens were frequently able to storm up the ice before the Lightning could recover, leading to the sort of odd-man rushes that sunk Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas.
Vasilevskiy refused to let that happen. Over and over again, he faced and extinguished Montreal’s barrage:
Moreover, his positioning was so dialed in that he made some of these tough saves look downright easy. Performances of this caliber both invigorate your teammates and intimidate your foes.
Tampa Bay never dictated the action in Game 2, but it did manage to summon its championship grit at key junctures.
As the second period winds down, Ben Chiarot throws caution to the wind and steps up to contest Barclay Goodrow in the neutral zone. He presumably takes this risk because there’s so little time remaining on the clock. However, Goodrow slips by Chiarot, leads Blake Coleman with a backhand pass and the Lightning deliver one of the all-time great playoff buzzer-beaters:
Coleman somehow topped last season’s diving heroics:
In the third period, Joel Edmundson bungles a routine exchange behind the net. Sensing that Price isn’t on his post, Ondrej Palat swoops in for the kill and banks the puck into the net for a brutal insurance marker:
While the Lightning didn’t play well in Game 2, when they saw an opportunity to bury the Habs, they took it and ultimately prevailed 3-1. Finding a way to win when you should lose—when your stars fail to influence proceedings and you hand your opponents chances on a silver platter—is the stuff of champions.
No matter how the game is unfolding, they seem built for the moment.
Late in the game, the moment called for Tampa Bay to lock in defensively. The Lightning nullified everything the Canadiens attempted—whether that meant one-on-one rushes or a mess of slot passes. The few decent shots they did allow were swallowed whole by Vasilevskiy.
Since the start of the postseason, he leads the league in save percentage. Let’s be clear: He isn’t piggybacking off an unstoppable team either. Tampa Bay is actually far from the steamroller it was in 2020 (49.0 xGF% vs. 55.9 xGF%), but its star netminder has bridged that gap. He leads all goaltenders in high-danger save percentage and goals saved above average per 60 minutes (minimum 500 minutes played) by significant margins.
No one is close right now.
Frankly, Vasilevskiy has become the Lightning’s trump card. Even on nights when defeat is staring them in the face, he can deliver them to victory. Wasn’t that Montreal’s hallmark?
In order to claim four of the next five contests, the Habs need to prove that two can play this game.