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Lightning’s fate in Eastern Conference final hinges on Vasilevskiy rediscovering his form

Andrei Vasilevskiy may be a Vezina Trophy finalist, but he hasn’t looked like a top-three netminder for the better part of three months, and if he doesn’t turn it around soon, the Lightning could be booking tee times earlier than expected.

Suffice to say, this isn’t how the Tampa Bay Lightning drew it up. 

Through two games of the Eastern Conference final, Tampa Bay has frittered away home-ice advantage in embarrassing fashion. In Game 1, a four-goal deficit resulted in a 4-2 loss for the Lightning, but Tampa Bay saved some face with a late push that came up short. There was no such face-saving in Game 2’s shameful showing, however. Looking to even the series, Tampa Bay was instead shelled, surrendering six goals en route to a 6-2 defeat. And at this point, the concerns for the Lightning are near limitless.

For instance, while the big guns on the offense have produced, their effectiveness has been limited to the power play. The Lightning have one goal at five-a-side through two games of this series, that tally scored by Ondrej Palat in the back half of the final frame in the opening game. The defense hasn’t been able to contain the Capitals attack, either. Washington has scored seven goals at evens, three goals on the power play and have outshot the Lightning in both contests and by a combined 69-56 margin. At 5-on-5, Washington has controlled play, too, to the tune of 53.3 of the shot attempts, 57 percent of all shots and nearly 60 percent of the scoring chances.

But the most significant difference between the two sides through two games — and the biggest concern for the Lightning — is in goal. While Washington’s Braden Holtby has maintained his level of play from the past two rounds, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy has failed to rise to the occasion and his play has put the Lightning’s collective backs squarely against the wall.

Through two games of this series, Vasilevskiy has surrendered 10 goals, which is to say the Capitals have been good enough to beat the netminder on about one in every six or seven shots they’ve managed to direct on net, and the Lightning netminder’s .839 save percentage is at odds with his standing as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this season, to be sure. And, so we’re clear, pointing the finger and laying the blame at Vasilevskiy’s feet for his performance following Game 2 isn’t exactly unfair.

Work your way through the highlights of the past two games and count the Capitals goals you feel Vasilevskiy would like back. A conservative estimate would suggest there are four goals, a pair from both games, the Tampa Bay keeper is going to wince at if or when he watches them back. That includes, but is not limited to, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s insurance tally and Brett Connolly’s goal that sent Lightning fans to the exits in Game 2.

More troubling about Vasilevskiy’s play through the first two games of the conference final, though, is that it isn’t really at odds with what Tampa Bay has seen from the netminder over the past few months.

No doubt, over the first half of the season and into the all-star break, Vasilevskiy was one of the league’s top netminders and a driving force behind the Lightning’s push to the top of the Eastern Conference. Exiting all-star weekend, at which he represented the hometown team, Vasilevskiy boasted a stellar .931 SP and seven shutouts, both of which were league-best totals among starting netminders. But in the three-plus months that have passed since, the Lightning netminder has been pedestrian at the best of times. 

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From Feb. 1 on through the end of the regular season, 23 netminders played at least 20 games. Of those, only four had a worse SP than Vasilevskiy, who struggled to the tune of a .902 mark over his final 24 appearances of the campaign. And the underlying numbers don’t do much, if anything, to excuse his level of play. Of 37 goaltenders to play at least 750 minutes at all strengths from the beginning of February onward, Vasilevskiy ranked 23rd in attempts against (57.6), sixth in shots against (34.2), 15th in scoring chances against (29.6) and 33rd in high-danger chances against (9.8) per 60 minutes. So, while the pucks were coming in at a higher than average frequency, he generally faced no greater danger on those shots than the average netminder.

The hope, however, was the post-season would allow Vasilevskiy to reset at the most crucial point in the campaign, and, truth be told, it appeared as though he had hit his stride once again in the first round. Through five games against the New Jersey Devils, who ranked 15th in scoring in the NHL during the regular season, Vasilevskiy allowed only 10 goals against in the entire series and put together a .941 SP. In no game during the first round did he post a sub-.920 SP. But then came the series against the Boston Bruins, during which Vasilevskiy managed a mere .909 SP with three sub-.920 performances, and we need not go over his performance against the Capitals again. Collectively, too, it paints a frightening picture: dating back to the start of February, and including the post-season, Vasilevskiy now has a .905 SP across his past 36 games.

The reality is, though, Tampa Bay has no choice but to stick with Vasilevskiy and hope against hope that he can persevere, erase Games 1 and 2 from his memory, find his game and steal at least one of the two contests in Washington to give the Lightning a chance at getting back into this series. But, according to Hockey-Reference, Tampa Bay’s chances are awfully slim: a team losing both home games to open a series has only gone on to win 20 times in 105 past series. And there’s next to no way the Lightning will be able to make that 21 without Vasilevskiy finding his form.

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