Vasilevskiy in good shape after a tough start to qualifying for Lightning

Sunrise, Florida – Andrei Vasilevsky The Florida Panthers mention the “big cat” of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

If Vasilevskiy looked like a human at the start of the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning goalkeeper has been locked out in his past three games, allowing one goal each. That includes wins in the first two games against Florida in the second round of the Eastern Conference, which turns into Tampa Bay for Game 3 of the Best of 7 Series on Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET; TNT, SN, TVAS).

“In my opinion, he’s the best player in the league,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergechev She said. “He always plays the same way, always does everything right. Sometimes [pucks] Get in, but in the big games you’ll see why he’s the best goalkeeper in the league.”

Nicknamed the “Big Cat” due to his size (6ft-3, 225lbs) and his cat-like reflexes, Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Cup, voted for him as the most expensive player in the playoffs, last season, when he was 16-7 with 1.90 goals against an average. ​.937 save percentage and five hits, led Tampa Bay to its second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. The 27-year-old has returned to that level in the past three games, stopping 98 of his 101 shots.

Vasilevsky saved 30 in a 2–1 win in Game 7 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, 33 in a 4–1 win in Game 1 against Florida on Tuesday, and 35 again in a 2–1 win in the game. 2 on Thursday.

“Vasy is always there and is our best player in the playoffs, regular season,” the Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov She said. “He gives 100 per cent effort in every match and everyone is just trying to put his energy into your game.”

So it came as a surprise when Vasilevskiy conceded at least three goals in each of his first six matches against Toronto. Although Vasilevskiy rebounded with victory after every loss in that series, and extended his run to 17-0 after losing since the start of the 2020 playoffs, his 3.37 GAA and .885 savings going into Game 7 against Toronto were well below his usual benchmarks. . .

“Probably like the whole team,” Vasilevsky said of his play up to that point. “I thought I played well.”

But “okay” is usually not good enough for Vasilievsky.

“We’re with Vasy the whole time and he’s a competitive guy as I’ve met him in terms of taking it really personally when he gives up on goals, which of course is great,” Lightning forward Stephen Stamkos She said. “You want a man who goes into battle and wants to be perfect. He wants to be perfect.”

Lightning helped Vasilevskiy return to this level by increasing his commitment to team defense and blocking shots. Tampa Bay blocked 26 shots in Game 7 against Toronto, 16 in Game 1 against Florida, and 24 in Game 2, including 15 in the third period.

The combination of defense and Vasilevskiy’s uplifting game was phenomenal in slowing down a powerful Panthers attack that led the NHL in scoring (4.11 goals per game) during the regular season.

“I think it was the fact that he came back to make all the saves you’d expect of him,” said ESPN analyst and former NHL goalkeeper Kevin Wakes. “They are back to playing the way they need to when they can’t get past the team’s skills and they put in five or six (goals). It’s thanks to them that they made their adjustments.”

The challenge for the Panthers is to find a way to score more against Lightning’s stifling defense and Vasilevskiy.

“It’s just a monster in the net. It’s so huge,” Panthers defenseman Ben Shearoot She said. “It takes so much of the net that when you shoot it there don’t seem to be any holes.”

The Panthers produced some good chances, but Vasilevskiy held them back by stopping in time at the crucial moments. In the first game, after Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s goal gave Tampa Bay a 2-1 3:35 third-half lead, Vasilevsky kicked my right board to stop him. Claude GiroudQuick shot with 5:20 left to maintain the one-goal advantage.

In game 2, after Ito lostarinenVasilevskiy’s shot snagged the equalizer just before 1:53 into the second half, but he shook that up to make three saves during a tough game in Florida in the last minute of the period. The best was left pillow stop Anthony DocklerOne timer from the right circle with nine seconds remaining.

“It’s your saves at the biggest of times and Fez seems to be doing that,” said Lightning coach John Cooper. “I know in the Toronto series he gives away more than he wants at times, but look at the saves he makes at the times we need it. For me, that’s what great goalkeepers do.”

With each victory, Lightning grows more confident that they can fulfill their quest to win the Stanley Cup Championship for the third time in a row. Vasilevskiy’s return to the top of his level is a great reason for this belief.

“They’ll be the first to tell you that they won because of him and because of their team’s game around him,” said Wikes. “He can steal toys on his own, but when he doesn’t let the pucks in that you don’t expect him to let in, he makes all the saves you expect of him, and then he makes some crazy saves you wouldn’t” but they expect him to make, that’s a crazy recipe.

“That’s what makes him the best in the league.”