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Why it's a good thing Vasilevskiy hasn't been spectacular for Lightning

By Diana C. Nearhos, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Hockey

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood in locker room A at Amalie Arena last April and used a word his teammates hadn't: the singular first-person pronoun, "I."

Just about everyone on the Lightning said some version of "we needed to be better" after they were swept by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs.

"I have to do better," Vasilevskiy said three different ways in the wake of that historic disappointment.

It took more than a year for the star goalie to get another chance - and in that time he was awarded the Vezina Trophy, signed a contract worth nearly $10 million a year and was nominated for another goalie of the year award.

Once the Lightning finally made it back to the playoffs, he's done what he said: Vasilevskiy has been better.

"I meant that I have to stop the puck more, do a little bit more than last year," he said this week. "So far, I've done it We'll see."

Vasilevskiy said it felt good for the Lightning to secure their spot in the conference final - returning for the fourth time in six years - "especially after last year. We kind of screwed it up."

As the Lightning have advanced through the NHL's bubble tournament, Vasilevskiy has been their stalwart in net. Of those that made it to the second round, he's the only goalie to play every game for his team.

The Lightning's conference final opponent, the Islanders, used a tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss all season. Varlamov has played most of the playoffs, but Greiss took over after a bad first period in Game 2 last round and played the latter game of both back-to-backs.

The Stars also used a tandem in the regular season. But with Ben Bishop unavailable most of the playoffs, they've been going with Anton Khudobin. Vegas has used both Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, recently riding out the hot hand in Lehner.

There's no question of a tandem or who is the hot goalie for the Lightning. Vasilevskiy is their guy.

Early on, before the exhibition game, coach Jon Cooper said backup Curtis McElhinney would play some before the start of the first round. Then he said Vasilevskiy would start, but McElhinney might come in in relief. That never happened.

Vasilevskiy played both games of the back-to-back against Boston, and Cooper said he'd had five months of rest and was fine.

 

Like most goalies, Vasilevskiy likes to play. He had to learn balance as a starter, how to rest his body between starts, when to skip an optional morning skate. He plays a heavy load - only two goalies played more games in the regular season.

"He can take a huge workload," Lightning color commentator Brian Engblom said. "He's got the body for it, he's conditioned for it. I don't think anything bothers him now."

Vasilevskiy leads the playoffs with 10 wins. Of netminders who have played more than five games, he's third in save percentage (.931) and fourth in goals-against-average (1.91) - and first among the remaining goalies in each category.

"Just like everybody on our team, what's happened to us last year, guys want to be on the ice to rewrite a new story and he's no different," coach Jon Cooper said after the Lightning won Game 5 to advance, "He's done a heck of a job, that's for sure."

While Vasilevskiy has done a heck of a job, he hasn't made as many of the jaw-droppingly impressive saves he's known for, nothing that makes you ask if he has eyes in the back of his head.

Ondrej Palat was quick to qualify that Vasilevskiy is still making some huge saves and called the goalie their "best player every single night."

It's true - there was one he made while on his butt, reaching for his stick, for example - but he hasn't shown off his athleticism the same way. Not because he's failing to make saves, he just hasn't had to.

As Palat also said, the Lightning are playing better defense in front of him. They talked a lot about limiting quality chances and have largely done so, which makes life a lot easier on a goalie.

Some of the most impressive-looking saves are when a goalie has to get across the crease from post to post and Vasilevskiy does that very well. But the Lightning have largely eliminated those plays, especially from high-to-low.

"If you always have to be spectacular, then there's something wrong," Engblom said. "If you always have to be spectacular, you're behind the play."

The best goaltenders don't have to move around a lot. They read the play and position themselves well, saving the sprawling save for the dire moments. That's what Vasilevskiy has done this postseason.

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