VANCOUVER – Even amid all that firepower, the best thing about the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday was goalie Andrei Vasilveskiy. The worst thing about the Vancouver Canucks is they’re not the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Canucks outplayed the National Hockey League’s best team for much of the final 40 minutes but couldn’t match the Lightning’s finish or their goaltending as Vasilveskiy was perfect long enough for Tampa to win 4-2 at Rogers Arena.
After falling behind 3-0, the Canucks scored twice in the final 10 minutes before Cory Conacher’s penalty-shot goal with 3:24 remaining clinched it for the talented Lightning, which improved to 36-13-3 – a mere 27 points ahead of Vancouver.
The Canucks really couldn’t be faulted for anything except falling behind 2-0 in the first six minutes. They outshot the Lightning 33-28, probably should have been within a goal going into the third period instead of down by three, but couldn’t beat Vasilevskiy until it was too late.
When you see the Lightning as rarely as we do on the West Coast, you don’t necessarily think about goaltending. You think of Tampa’s spectacular offence, Steve Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, its many small but speedy forwards and its giant defenceman, Victor Hedman. But you should think of the Lightning’s goaltending. You should think of Vasilveskiy. Even as Kucherov heads towards the Hart Trophy and Hedman the Norris, the 23-year-old Vasilveskiy might be the most important player on their team.
“He’s been our best player throughout the whole year,” Hedman said after scoring a goal and devouring 27:05 of ice time against the Canucks. “He’s been phenomenal, keeping us in games we don’t really deserve. He’s a game-changer, that’s for sure.
“He’s still a young kid. He had a little bit of a stretch there, two or three games, where pucks were going in. But he’s the biggest competitor on this team. We owe it to him to play better over 60 minutes. He has undoubtedly been our most complete player the whole year.”
It was only when the Canucks began to sustain spells of offensive-zone pressure in the second period that Tampa’s most underrated strength became evident.
Sure, Vasilveskiy has gaudy numbers like most of his teammates do – in his case, 31 wins, a 2.22 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. But it’s only when you see him play that you understand why the Lightning were so willing to dump star starter Ben Bishop at the trade deadline last season and hand the crease to the young Russian.
The six-foot-three goalie is as quick as his teammates, but supremely under control, always square to shooters, always upright, the puck in front of him. Vasilveskiy made a pile of difficult saves look easy against the Canucks.
Despite at least four great scoring chances for Vancouver in the first half of the middle period, the Lightning went up 3-0 at 15:47 when Yanni Gourde finished a give-and-go with defenceman Mikhail Sergechev by rifling a shot over Jacob Markstrom as the Canucks goalie pitched forward while trying to get across his net.
By the time a puck finally got past Vasilevskiy on a speedy wraparound by Thomas Vanek at 10:00 of the third period, the Canucks were outshooting the Lightning 29-22. That’s not too unusual for Tampa, which despite a league-leading goal differential of plus-53 generates the same number of shots per game as its opponents. It illustrates a couple of things: how well the Lightning snipers finish, and how often Vasilveskiy outplays the goalie at the other end like he did on Saturday.
“He makes everything look easy,” Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. “We come down the slot and there’s no panic. He just took away the angles. It was impressive.”
Playing well again with top centres Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter back from injury, the Canucks won three of their previous four games against decent opponents, but found themselves in another weight class against the Lightning. Actually, if it were really a weight class, the Canucks would have had to wear sweatsuits in the sauna for two weeks to trim down for the Lightning, who have the smallest group of forwards in the NHL and probably one of the smallest forward corps since the 1970s.
But since hockey long ago outlawed sumo wrestling and small players skate free these days between October and April, Tampa’s speed, puck movement and scoring depth are formidable. The Lightning look like the best team in the NHL, although we’ll see how all the wee guys up front (the Lightning used eight five-foot-something forwards against the Canucks) handle two months of physical abuse if they’re to win the Stanley Cup.
Regular season, against the Canucks or anybody, the Lightning are a monster opponent.
Tampa made it 1-0 just 86 seconds into the game when Chris Kunitz tipped in Anton Stralman’s point shot. By 5:52, it was 2-0 when Hedman’s shot went between Markstrom’s pads after the defenceman went to the net one step ahead of Horvat, who was leaving the zone early.
After Vanek’s goal offset Gourde’s, Brock Boeser’s wrist shot from the slot on a 2-on-1 – after the Canucks rookie-of-the-year candidate skated around Stralman –brought Vancouver within a goal with 5:30 remaining.
But Conacher rattled his penalty shot in off Markstrom’s hip after Canuck defenceman Chris Tanev turned the puck over from Sedin’s tough pass and high-sticked the Lightning forward on a breakaway.
“In the second period, we have a good period and we give up the third goal,” Sedin lamented. “That can’t happen; it cost us the game. But we did a lot of good things.
“We just played a really good team.”