Andrei Vasilevskiy could be Lightning's equalizer vs.  Avalanche: 'We're gonna need him'

Andrei Vasilevskiy could be Lightning’s equalizer vs. Avalanche: ‘We’re gonna need him’

TAMPA, Fla. – Maybe the most shocking part of the Tampa Bay Lightning finishing off the New York Rangers on Saturday and becoming the first team in nearly 40 years to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for a third straight season is that Andrei Vasilevskiy gave up a goal.

That’s how perfect this superstar goalie has been in series-clinching victories during the Lightning’s incredible run the past three years.

But despite that one power-play goal that turned a one-goal Lightning lead into an extremely short-lived tie thanks to Steven Stamkos’ response 21 seconds later, Vasilevskiy kneeled on one knee and had his left hand on the Prince of Wales Trophy as he posed for what’s become the common team picture after a Lightning Eastern Conference crown.

“Look at the last couple of games, you know, we had to score two goals to win,” Stamkos said after scoring his 40th and 41st career playoff goals during Tampa Bay’s 2-1 win in Game 6 as the Lightning won the series 4 -2. “That’s pretty amazing. It just shows his ability. I mean, we could talk till we’re blue in the face about Vassy because he’s … he’s that good. But at the end of the day, he goes out and he doesn’t say a word. He goes out there and just plays unbelievable and gives us a chance to win every night.”

In Vasilevskiy’s past eight series-clinching victories, he has given up a ridiculous two goals on 221 shots. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a .991 save percentage. In those eight series-clinching wins, he has saved 17 goals above expected.

He got off to a slow start in the series. It took him a few games to scrape off the rust from a long layoff after the Lightning swept the Florida Panthers (nine goals allowed in Games 1 and 2), but in the last four games, Vasilevskiy was just brilliant by allowing five goals – one at even strength.

He wasn’t tested a lot during his 20-save effort Saturday night, but when they needed him, he, as usual, was there with a timely stop or two. In the third period, he made a brilliant left pad save to rob Andrew Copp.

He gave up no goals through two periods for the 15th time in a playoff start and fourth time this postseason. He is 15-0 when that happens, including seven shutouts and six contests in which he allowed only one goal.

There’s a reason the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner and 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is considered “the best goalie in the world” by his peers, including Rangers young star goalie and likely Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin.

Now, the juggernaut that is the Colorado Avalanche will face something they haven’t seen all playoffs – a superstar goalie.

“He’s one of the best goalies in the league,” Avalanche forward JT Compher said earlier this season. “He’s real athletic, he’s big. You’ve got to make sure that when you get chances, you’re focused. He’s never out of the play. Whenever you think you might have an empty net or a rebound chance, make sure you’re putting it in a good spot.”

As Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “Goaltenders hide flaws on your team, and I’ll be the first to stand in line and raise my hand and say Vassy’s done that for us. When you break down, you need somebody there to make the save for you and keep you in the game. Look at Game 4 of the Florida Panthers series, we were outplayed in that game.”

Vasilevskiy, 27, made 49 saves that night and will now face an Avalanche team that has scored a league-high 4.64 goals per game in the playoffs after finishing fourth during the regular season at 3.76 goals per game. But in a league where teams scored at historic proportions this season, the Lightning can still defend like few others. They’ve allowed only 2.41 goals per game this postseason after finishing sixth during the regular season at 2.78.

Vasilevskiy said he thought the Lightning played their best game of the playoffs Saturday night and knows that must continue against the Avs.

“Colorado is a great team,” he said. “Lots of talent, in front, in the back, too. … Big challenge ahead. It’s going to be the toughest series ahead of us.”

Stamkos said after Game 5 that the Lightning needed to “defend till the end.” That is their MO, after all. They still buy into that in a league where teams seem to want to score five, six, seven goals a game. The Avs are surely one of those teams with a laundry list of tremendous forwards such as Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog and defensemen such as Cale Makar and Devon Toews.

“I mean, it’s really a point of emphasis with our team,” forward Alex Killorn said. “I think we have enough skill and talent to score offensively, but we focus on our defensive game.”

And when you defend like the Lightning and then get to rely on Vasilevskiy in net, it’s a pretty good recipe for success and a potential third straight Stanley Cup.

“We’re gonna need him more than ever,” Stamkos said. “But we have all the confidence in the world. I mean, there’s a reason why he’s the best in the world because he plays unbelievable in the biggest moments. And as an athlete, that’s all you can dream for is to play your best hockey when the stakes are the highest, and he does that.

“And in these elimination games, the stats speak for themselves. But tonight, I thought as a group … the ‘defend to the end’ mentality was contagious, and there’s a reason we rattled off four in a row against a team of that caliber is because we defended. And Vassy is a huge part of that.”

(Photo of Andrei Vasilevskiy making a save in Game 6: Kim Klement/USA Today)

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