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

TAMPA, Fla. — Perhaps the most shocking part of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who defeated the New York Rangers on Saturday and became the first team to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for a third straight season in almost 40 years, was that Andrei Vasilevskiy gave up a goal.

That’s how perfect this superstar goaltender has been in his streak of winning streaks during the Lightning’s incredible run over the past three years.

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

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

In Vasilevskiy’s last eight straight wins, he has given up a ridiculous two goals in 221 shots. If you score at home, that’s a 0.991 percent savings. In those eight straight wins, he has saved 17 goals above expectations.

He had a slow start to the series. It took him a few games to scrape the rust off a long layoff after the Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers (nine goals allowed in Games 1 and 2), but in the last four games Vasilevskiy has been simply brilliant by conceding five goals – one at an even strength.

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

For the 15th time in a playoff start and the fourth time this postseason, he didn’t give up a goal in two thirds. In this case, he’s 15-0, including seven shutouts and six contests in which he’s conceded just 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 Colorado Avalanche will face something they haven’t seen in all the playoffs — a superstar goaltender.

“He’s one of the best goalies in the league,” Avalanche forward JT Compher said earlier this season. “He’s really athletic, he’s tall. You have to make sure you’re focused when you get chances. He’s never out of the game. Whenever you think you have an empty net or a chance for a rebound, make sure you put it in a good spot.

As Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “Goalies hide mistakes on your team and I’ll be the first to stand in line and put my hand up and say Vassy did that for us. When you glitch, you need someone to 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 now faces an Avalanche team that has posted a league-high 4.64 goals per game in the playoffs after finishing fourth in the regular season with 3.76 goals per game had become. But in a league where teams have scored historic goals this season, the Lightning can still defend like few others. They’ve conceded just 2.41 goals per game this postseason after finishing sixth in the regular season with a 2.78.

Vasilevskiy said he thinks the Lightning played their best game of the playoffs on Saturday night and knows the game must go on against the Avs.

“Colorado is a great team,” he said. “A lot of talent, in front, also behind. … Great challenge ahead. This will be the toughest series we have ahead of us.”

Stamkos said after Game 5 that the Blitz had to “defend to the end.” This is her MO, after all. They still believe in that in a league where teams seem to want five, six, seven goals a game. The Avs are certainly one of those teams with a long list of great forwards like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog and defenders like Cale Makar and Devon Toews.

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

And if you can defend like the Lightning and then rely on Vasilevskiy at the net, that’s a pretty good recipe for success and a potential third straight Stanley Cup.

“We’re going to need him more than ever,” Stamkos said. “But we have all the confidence in the world. I mean there’s a reason he’s the best in the world because he’s amazing in the biggest moments. And as an athlete, you can only dream of playing your best hockey when the stakes are highest, and he does.

“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 a team of this caliber four times in a row because we defended. And Vassy is a big part of that.”

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

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