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Andrei Vasilevskiy is back – and Tampa Bay needs to keep him fresh

The Lightning netminder has Vezina Trophy-worthy skills and plays for a top-flight team. If that squad wants to win the Stanley Cup, the goaltender must be protected from overuse in the regular season.

So Andrei Vasilevskiy’s back, eh?

The Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender had missed the previous 14 games with a foot injury, but his comeback appearance against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs pretty much tamped down any questions about rust: Vasilevskiy was brilliant.

The Lightning stopper turned aside 48 shots from the Leafs in a 4-1 Tampa Bay victory and yes, there was some grand larceny involved. The good news for the Lightning is that Vasilevskiy already looks fully recovered. The next mission is to make sure he gets the rest necessary to be this spritely come playoff time.

Because we don’t have to beat around the bush here: Tampa Bay is one of the top teams in the NHL once again and the Stanley Cup should be there only measuring stick for success. Division titles are nice and all, but the Bolts have the roster to go all the way.

The path will not be easy. As Nashville found out last year, the toughest opponents in the post-season can be the ones in your own backyard and just as division mate Winnipeg spelled the end of the Predators in the second round last season, so too could Tampa Bay be tripped up by either Boston or Toronto in the Atlantic.

Which is why Vasilevskiy must be in peak form once the post-season rolls around. This may seem obvious, but the big Russian netminder played a career-high 65 games for the Lightning last season and it seemed to catch up to him in the second half, where his performance dropped off. To wit: he surrendered six goals in a game three times in March alone.

The playoffs? Good, but not earth-shaking. Tampa Bay drew wild card New Jersey in the first round and the Devils had to scratch and claw their way into the post-season, so they were overmatched. The Lightning easily dispatched a Bruins team coming off a track-meet series with Toronto in the second round, before falling to Washington in the conference final. Now, getting to the second-last round is good, don’t get me wrong. And losing a positional battle to Braden Holtby – who didn’t give up a goal in the Capitals net in two straight elimination games against Tampa Bay – is understandable. But our expectations should be incredibly high when it comes to this Lightning team and for Vasilevskiy.

This is a netminder who came third in Vezina Trophy voting last season and should be in the running for the award again this year. It’s practically a foregone conclusion that Vasilevskiy will win it at some point in his career; he’s just that good. He can certainly guide the Bolts to their second Cup title this season, if his minutes are handled right.

Luckily, Tampa Bay has the luxury of being great at all positions and right now, the Lightning are eight points clear of second-place Toronto in the Atlantic Division. Boston is pushing through a vortex of injuries, so the Bruins won’t be challenging for that first-place spot (though they remain a deadly playoff opponent once everyone returns to the lineup) and the Buffalo Sabres are still finding their consistency.

So the Bolts can be a little measured in the second half. Louis Domingue has already made 18 appearances for the club due to Vasilevskiy’s stint on IR and the backup netminder was fine. But if Domingue has to play 15 more games this season in order to give Vasilevskiy the proper recovery time for a long playoff run, then so be it. One game of a back-to-back is obvious, but the Bolts also end their regular season with four straight road games over the span of six days – and all divisional opponents. If Domingue plays two of those dates, it could be a real help.

Snagging that No. 1 seed in the East comes with some very nice benefits, but it shouldn’t be difficult to do for Tampa Bay. Being prepared to go all the way is the main priority and rest for Vasilevskiy is key.

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