TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy stretched as far as humanly possible, contorting his body and spreading his right pad in a way that makes a casual observer feel sympathetic pains.
That extra effort would prove invaluable, allowing the Tampa Bay Lightning to get to their feet under them and not be overwhelmed after losing the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final to the Colorado Avalanche.
When Avalanche forward JT Compher saw the juicy bounce his way, you can be sure he thought it would be an easy touch, the kind of goal that would provide an early spark and a way to silence the crowd.
Instead, it was an astonishing save and a sign that Vasilevskiy was locked in and ready to bounce back after allowing an astonishing seven goals in a Game 2 blowout loss.
“At the time, I forgot what the score was in the game when that play happened, but it’s almost one of those plays where you think about, it just lands on his stick and it’s almost a guaranteed goal,” Lightning winger Alex Killorn said. On tuesday. “So in terms of momentum, it’s huge for us to get back in the game. I think that’s one of the things with Vasy, he’s able to make those saves that almost look like goals.”
Though the Avalanche would still open the scoring in Game 3, it was the only time they held the lead in the game (a 6-2 win for the home team) and there’s no question that Vasilevskiy coming back to a superhuman level was one of the Top reasons the Lightning were able to get off the canvas and cut the series deficit to 2-1 heading into Wednesday’s game (8:17 pm ET, Sportsnet).
Vasilevskiy’s resilience is the stuff of legend, a reputation built on hard work and sheer determination.
He’s the best money goalie on the planet and he wasn’t about to let his team fall behind 0-3.
“You can learn a lot from him and his mental toughness. He is always there,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. “It’s not like he’s taking a night off. 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.
“We’re trying to show up every night, so he’s happy. We’re trying to keep him happy. But really, he’s the toughest mentally tough guy I’ve ever met.”
That mental toughness is part of the reason Lightning head coach Jon Cooper decided to leave Vasilevskiy in Saturday night’s game for the third period, even though his team trailed 5-0 after 40 minutes.
Although Cooper has said several times this series that he just doesn’t like to take Vasilevskiy out under almost any circumstances, this seemed like an opportunity to put in backup Brian Elliott in the third period.
Not as a punishment, but as a way for Vasilevskiy to gain an advantage in the restart process, knowing full well that he needed to be at his best in Game 4.
Cooper, it turned out, knew what his goalkeeper needed more than the hall coaches, including yours truly, who was in Vasilevskiy’s field of attraction.
Cooper has been with Vasilevskiy long enough to know he wasn’t going to be put off by Cale Makar’s two additional goals that defeated him in the third period, even if his body language and the slump of his shoulders might have suggested otherwise.
The truth was, Vasilevskiy kept the Avalanche from reaching double figures with some standout saves, including the glove save to rob Valeri Nichushkin of a hat-trick.
Having to sit one spot out of seven between games isn’t an easy hurdle to overcome, but that’s something Vasilevskiy has gotten better at over the course of his eight-year NHL career.
“His mental growth has been phenomenal over the last six or seven years. I think that kind of loss (in Game 2) in 2014 or 2015, losses are painful, but that would have left him more time,” Cooper said. “That’s what makes the good guys great.
“The goalkeeper is the last line of defense. Every time a goal comes in, everyone looks at him. And to be able to have that ability to turn the page, (it’s) different because you have two days to turn the page, but when a goal comes in, you have to turn the page in 10 seconds, when the puck drops. That, I think has been his gift that has made him great, the ability to turn the page.”
The Lightning, along with Vasilevskiy, did an excellent job of turning the page after the blowout loss and now we’re about to find out if the two-time defending champions can even the series or face elimination. on Friday night when the series returns to Denver.
Vasilevskiy will need to play at an elite level as the series resumes, given how the Avalanche have responded to previous losses with standout efforts in Games 3 and 6 of their second-round series with the St. Louis Blues.
“Yeah, we’ve got to keep gunning him down,” Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews said. “We feel like if we give him enough chances, we’ll have our chances to score and we feel like we’re getting into good scoring areas right now.
“He is a great goalkeeper. He is very athletic. And for that he is one of the best in the world right now. And it’s a challenge every night trying to pass the records to him. We just have to reach our goals.”
Lightning forward Nick Paul had extensive experience playing against Vasilevskiy before he was acquired from the Ottawa Senators at the NHL trade deadline, but he was impressed to see how the goalie operates on a daily basis.
“He has always scored. I think that’s what makes him a good goalie,” said Paul, who delivered the game-winning goal in Game 3 despite struggling with a lower-body issue. “There are no days off for him. He is always focused. He is taking everything seriously. Then when it’s game time, you guys see it.
“Any time there’s a big save to be made, he makes it. It’s just amazing. He is the best goalkeeper there is. He shows with his routines and how he takes care of himself every day that there is a reason why he is the best.”
Vasilevskiy’s ability to steal games is something the Lightning have leaned on numerous times, especially over the past few seasons during their runs to the Stanley Cup Final.
They know how valuable it is to their success and never take it for granted.
“It certainly gives us confidence back there. He’s a special player that doesn’t show up very often,” Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “So obviously we’re very lucky to have him and he’s been the backbone of this organization for as long as he’s been here. It’s impressive to watch.”
• Controlled Ray: After a 7-0 loss in which they failed to open a game with the offense, the Lightning controlled the only thing they could control.
• ice poker: It is easy to observe Kucherov’s behavior and jump to conclusions about his level of attention. But doing so indicates a failure to recognize the site of most of your heavy lifting: your brain.
• MacKinnon isn’t scoring. That is a problem: After a night in which the Lightning stars shone brightly, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that MacKinnon is yet to score a goal so far in the final.
• Lightning finds life: Give up nine unanswered goals in the championship, and the mood can quickly turn somber. There was blood in the water. But panic was not in the air.