WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Ben Bishop went down with a leg injury in Game 2 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, a 20-year-old Russian goalie named Andrei Vasilevskiy came off the bench in relief for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Centreman Tyler Johnson remembers it well: “Everybody thought we were down and out,” he says.
Fair enough, too. Because while Vasilevskiy had seen some NHL action—16 games that past regular season, and two relief situations earlier in those playoffs—the 2012 first-round pick was hardly what you’d call proven. Plus, this latest assignment was decidedly different, with the Cup on the line.
“But in the locker room, we knew what we had in Vasy—we knew what he was capable of,” Johnson says. “And he played unbelievable that night.”
Vasilevskiy was perfect, in fact, making five saves in the little over nine minutes remaining in the game, and the Lightning earned the win. It had been more than 80 years since a goalie won in relief during a Stanley Cup Final series, until the young Russian.
Certainly, the familiarity with No. 88 for the Lightning has only grown since then, after this Vezina Trophy-nominated season in which Vasilevskiy helped lead his team to the best record in the East. He played in his first All-Star Game, led the NHL in wins and shutouts, and posted a 2.62 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.
But the 23-year-old hadn’t exactly been shining in this Eastern Conference final, after giving up 10 goals through the first two games, in large part because his team wasn’t giving him much in the way of support. “He’s one of those guys we rely on, but we don’t want to rely on him too much, which we’ve been doing,” Johnson says.
In Games 1 and 2, the Washington Capitals got a slew of 2-on-1 chances featuring guys like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. But in Game 3 on Tuesday night, a 4-2 Tampa Bay win, while Vasilevskiy faced 38 shots, the chances weren’t quite as good on Washington’s end, and it allowed Vasilevskiy to play his best game of this series, highlighted by a big shoulder save he made on Ovechkin.
Veteran defender Anton Stralman figured it was about time they gave Vasilevskiy a good defensive performance.
“I think we always feel like we owe him,” Stralman says. “He’s our best player. He’s always there for us, and we did a good job for him [Tuesday]. When we’re on, that gives him confidence. And that’s how it should be.”
“Vasy’s making all the saves he has to, and more,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper adds. “You just can’t give a team like that the Grade A after Grade A after Grade A [chance]. It doesn’t matter, you could put Vasilevskiy and [Braden] Holtby and [Carey] Price and [Henrik] Lundqvist in the net all at the same time, eventually it’s still gonna go in.
“Vasy’s been making those saves all year, there’s never been a doubt in my mind. He’s been on it. We’ve just got to help him out and we did last night.”
Where Vasilevskiy has grown most over the last few seasons, if you ask Cooper, is mentally. He’s become good at shaking off bad goals and big losses and moving on.
“It’s very important, especially in the playoffs,” says Vasilevskiy. “Good or bad game, doesn’t matter. Turn the page, start over again and again. That’s how you get success.”
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Certainly that couldn’t have been an easy quality for the Russian to develop, because among a group of some of the most competitive people on the planet, he stands out. “Sometimes he’s a little bit too competitive, in a way,” Johnson says. “You kind of have to settle him down a little.”
Stamkos highlights Vasilevskiy’s mental and physical preparation as further evidence. “He wants to be the best all the time,” the Lightning captain says. “He doesn’t want to give up a goal at all, including in practice. That’s the mentality he has and that’s why he’s so good.”
Johnson isn’t sure when it occurred to him that Vasilevskiy was going to become one of the premier goalies in the league, but it was probably even before No. 88 made his debut in that Stanley Cup Final three years ago.
“Once I saw him in practice day after day and saw some of the saves he was making against us, it was just outstanding,” says Johnson. “You kind of knew the sky was the limit for him.
“We’re very fortunate to have Vasy. I think he’s the best goalie in the world.”