DENVER - If you looked at just the advanced analytics from Game 3 with no context of the actual game, you'd be led to believe the Colorado Avalanche absolutely smoked the Tampa Bay Lightning.
At 5-on-5, most of the metrics played in Colorado's favor, according to Natural Stat Trick. And they did in the first two games, too, showing the Avs' advantage in the early stages of the Stanley Cup final.
But the Lightning won 6-2 on Monday, and nearly took Game 4 with a stellar performance from their netminder once more. They lost in overtime, however, and they're another one away from ending one of the most dominant streaks we've seen in four decades.
Andrei Vasilevskiy deserves so much praise for what he has done over the past few years, but the team needs him to be the clutch sole they know he can be once more to keep the dream alive.
After playing lights-out hockey in Game 3 -- allowing just two power-play goals against -- Vasilevskiy followed that up with another big performance in Game 4, awakening the "Vasy" chants on a handful of occasions. It's customary for the Amalie Arena crowd to chant his name after player introductions, and a pair of huge saves to kick off Monday's game really set the tone for what was to come that night.
The Bolts are now back in the series and hoping to knock the Avs down at Ball Arena, where the team has been so good throughout the playoffs. Looking back to Game 1, Lightning coach Jon Cooper called Vasilevskiy the best player that night, but he struggled early and forced the team to chase. In Game 2, he allowed seven goals, but his team couldn't beat Darcy Kuemper. So, frankly, it didn't matter what Vasilevskiy did.
But his play at home was a big part of why the Lightning are back in this, swinging the momentum in their favor with a Best-of-3 still to come.
"He's focused all the time. He's always dialed in," forward Nick Paul said. "That's what makes him such a good goalie. No days off for him. He’s always focused. He’s taking everything serious. Then, when game time comes, you guys see."
As Tampa took a 2-1 lead into the second intermission, it came on the heels of a 16-save effort from No. 88. He allowed just the one power-play goal, a bounce off of Nathan MacKinnon's skate, but he was solid otherwise and took away all of Colorado's quality scoring chances.
When Vasilevskiy is locked in, he's really locked in. He entered Game 4 -- his 21st game of the season -- with a .934 save percentage, 6.76 goals saved above average and .898 high-danger save percentage, all among the best in the playoffs. He hasn't lost an elimination game since 2019, and with a 17.42 GSAA over the past three years, he's the only goalie above 7.00. That's aided by the fact he's played over double the games of any other goalie, but ask anyone who's played with him and they'll point to the 2021 Conn Smythe winner as being the most clutch player on the team.
That overtime breakaway stop five minutes in is proof. And then the big glove stop a few minutes later. And then the other big glove stop. And... you get it. The Avalanche ultimately won the game off of an awkward goal that took a second for anyone to realize it went in, a goal that built controversy on its own.
Still, the club believes in him, and they'll need Vasy to be the savior they know he can be.
"He's always there. He's always making those crazy saves and sometimes we play bad for him, but we're trying to be like him," defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. "We’re trying to show up every night and play hard, so he's happy. We're trying to keep him happy."
Tampa Bay is without Brayden Point for the time being, and a few other key players have been beaten and bruised along the way. The Avalanche are nearly back to full strength after getting Nazem Kadri back, who scored the winner on Wednesday. That alone makes Vasilevskiy's job more important, especially with how gassed the Lightning seem to be in the latter stages of these games.
Tampa Bay has a mountain to overcome here, but at least they have one of the best in their crease to get it done.