TORONTO — Andrei Vasilevskiy showed the Toronto Maple Leafs why he’s one of the NHL’s most dominant goaltenders this season.
Vasilevskiy stopped 30 shots for his NHL-best sixth shutout of the season as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Maple Leafs 2-0 on Tuesday night.
The Russian goaltender earned his league-leading 26th win for the Lightning (29-8-2) as Cedric Paquette and Alex Killorn had the goals at the Air Canada Centre.
"It feels good," Vasilevskiy said. "Sometimes (our defence) is able to help me and sometimes I’m able to help them."
Vasilevskiy, 23, is enjoying a career season with Tampa Bay. When the Lightning parted ways with goaltender Ben Bishop last season, they did so with the hope that Vasilevskiy was ready to become the team’s undisputed No. 1 goaltender.
He’s played in 12 playoff games, including two appearances during the team’s Stanley Cup final run in 2015, but there was always a question of how he would handle the spotlight and workload that comes with being the true starter.
So far, he’s proven worthy of the promotion.
"It’s just been a pleasure to watch him grow in this league," Lightning coach John Cooper said. "He makes us a little bigger on the bench, that’s for sure."
Tampa Bay controlled much of the pace during the first period, outshooting Toronto 25-12.
The Lightning opened the scoring when Chris Kunitz stripped Frederik Andersen of the puck while the Leafs goaltender was handling it behind the net. Kunitz centred a pass to Paquette in the slot and he converted at 12:00 for his first goal since Jan. 21, 2017.
"It was that type of goal where everyone was just on their checks," Kunitz said of the game-winner.
The Lightning added to their lead when Killorn’s shot from the circle went through Andersen’s legs. Initially, game officials let play resume as they ruled no goal at the time, but after 22 seconds the league office called in to interrupt play and award Tampa the goal at 16:54.
"I didn’t think it went in at the time, I didn’t see it unless it would have hit the back of the net," Killorn said of the sequence. "But I knew when the buzzer went, it was a goal."
The Leafs’ best chance to score came in the second period when Mitch Marner had a breakaway. He cut across and forced Vasilevskiy to stretch across the net to make a pad save.
"He made a really good play and I think I got lucky a little bit," Vasilevskiy said of Marner’s chance.
Toronto (23-16-2) was looking to begin 2018 on a winning note against the NHL’s best team. Instead, the Leafs were outplayed as Tampa Bay held a 36-30 edge in shots on goal. Marner’s solid second period highlighted an issue the Leafs have had at points throughout the year: slow starts.
"I thought the first period for him and that line was not very good. Then I thought he dominated the game in the second and third," Babcock said of Marner. "When you’re going to be a driver on our team like he’s going to be, it’s every night. You’ve got to be ready to go right from the get-go."
With both teams featuring superstar offensive threats, the scoring was low as both sides focused on a checking.
"I think we played well. I don’t think we got outplayed at all," said Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, who returned after missing the last two games with an upper-body injury. "(We) kept their big line off the scoresheet and that’s tough to do sometimes, but they got a couple of breaks."
Andersen made 34 saves in the loss.
NOTE: Toronto centre Frederik Gauthier made his regular-season debut.