Resistance is futile. At least that is what it must have felt like for the Toronto Maple Leafs after two periods last night against the Lightning. The Leafs found themselves trailing 4-1 despite peppering goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy with shots on the power play and forcing a handful of difficult saves at even strength. Toronto collected 33 shots to the Lightning’s 19 through two frames, and even more dispiriting, the Lightning’s one-goal lead ballooned to three after they struck twice with under a minute left in the middle period. But the narrative was Vasilevskiy. Tampa Bay’s goaltender was indomitable in his return from injury, turning away every shot after the Kasperi Kapanen rocket that came a little more than five minutes into the first period.
I cannot fathom how frustrating it must be to try to beat Vasilevskiy. When he sinks into a butterfly, he becomes omnipresent. He is everywhere, using his agility and athleticism to eliminate the entire bottom half of the net. On the Auston Matthews save, Vasilevskiy went from hugging the near post to stymieing the shot from the backdoor. Matthews has one of the quickest releases in the NHL, yet Vasilevskiy’s reaction time bested Matthews’ in the race to block the puck from sneaking into the corner.
On the Tavares opportunity, the former Islanders star crept behind the Lightning defensive coverage and had a point-blank chance to shoot and deke Vasilevskiy. Tavares feigned forehand and then went backhand, attempting to scoop the puck over the goalie’s left pad. But again, Vasilevskiy is a freak. He shrank the six-by-four net with a split that allowed him to scuttle the opportunity by extending his pad where Tavares had hoped to stuff the puck past him. Vasilevskiy’s efficiency in movement means he can outwait Tavares, extinguishing each option in real time. He can square up to the shot, and then, as it becomes a fake shot and morphs into a deke, he can contort his body to stifle the sleight of hand. He extinguishes the shot possibility and the deke in one sequence.
But as impressive as the saves on Matthews and Tavares were, Vasilevskiy was also tracking the puck at an exceptional level last night. On the power play, the Maple Leafs were whipping shots on him from the circles, and Vasilevskiy was seeing the puck into his glove. This was even true of a Mitch Marner shot where Tavares tipped it a couple of inches before the net. The puck was denied because Vasilevskiy was so fundamentally sound. He is always in position to absorb and swat away the shot. The same goes for his reaction save off of Nazem Kadri in the slot, where the puck took an unexpected bounce and Vasilevskiy was able to whisk it away.
The Lightning went 12-3 in Vasilevskiy’s absence. Nikita Kucherov has 29 points in his last 15 games. Brayden Point has established that he belongs in the same breath as the elite in his age bracket (Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Connor McDavid, Marner, Matthews). Third-line center Anthony Cirelli suddenly looks like he could be a 25-goal scorer in the future. It became clear during the Louis Domingue tenure that the greatness coursing through this team is not contingent on Vasilevskiy. He greatly enhances the Lightning, but he is not their most prominent component.
Last night, Tampa Bay struggled in their breakouts, were sloppy in their defensive coverage, and won because of a few quick-strike tallies. Yet, despite giving a C effort (which might be grade inflation), they managed to pull out a three-goal victory against one of the most talented teams in the NHL. When the skaters and goaltender match each other’s brilliance, it will be a sight to behold.