TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy stretched out as wide as humanly possible, contorting his body and extending his right pad in a way that makes a casual observer feel sympathy pains.
That extra effort would prove to be invaluable, allowing the Tampa Bay Lightning to get their feet underneath them and not get overwhelmed after dropping the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final to the Colorado Avalanche.
When Avalanche forward J.T. Compher saw the juicy rebound bounce out in his direction, you can be sure he thought this was going to be an easy tap-in, the kind of goal that was going to provide an early spark and a way to silence the crowd.
Instead, it was a jaw-dropping save and a sign that Vasilevskiy was locked in and ready to bounce back after allowing an astounding seven goals in the Game 2 blowout loss.
“In that moment, I forget what the score in the game was when that play happened, but it’s almost one of those plays where you think, it just lands on his stick and it’s almost a guaranteed goal,” Lightning winger Alex Killorn said on Tuesday. “So momentum-wise, it’s huge for us to get back into the game. I think that’s one of the things with Vasy, he’s able to make those saves that they almost seem to be goals.”
Although 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 side — and there’s no doubt Vasilevskiy getting back to a super-human level was one of the main reasons the Lightning were able to pick themselves up off the mat and trim the series deficit to 2-1 heading into Wednesday’s game (8:17 p.m. ET, Sportsnet).
Vasilevskiy’s bounce-back ability 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's always there,” said Lightning defenceman Mikhail Sergachev. “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 that he's happy. We're trying to keep him happy. But really, he's the mentally toughest guy I've ever met.”
That mental fortitude is part of the reason Lightning head coach Jon Cooper chose to leave Vasilevskiy in the game on Saturday night for the third period, despite his team trailing 5-0 after 40 minutes.
Although Cooper has said several times this series that he simply doesn’t like pulling Vasilevskiy under almost any circumstances, this seemed like an opportunity to put backup Brian Elliott in for the third period.
Not as a punishment, but as a way for Vasilevskiy to get a head start on the resetting process, knowing full well that he needed to be at his sharpest in Game 4.
As it turns out, Cooper knew what his goalie needed more than the armchair coaches, including yours truly — who was in the pull Vasilevskiy camp.
Cooper has been around Vasilevskiy long enough to know that he wasn’t going to be discouraged by the two additional goals from Cale Makar that beat him during the third period, even if his body language and the slumping of his shoulders might have suggested otherwise.
The truth was that Vasilevskiy still prevented the Avalanche from hitting double digits with a few highlight-reel saves, including the glove stop to rob Valeri Nichushkin of securing a hat trick.
Having to sit on a seven-spot 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-to-seven years. I think that type of loss (in Game 2) in 2014 or ’15, the losses are painful, but that would’ve stuck with him longer,” said Cooper. “That’s what makes the good ones great.
"The goalie, he’s the last line of defence. Any time a goal goes in, everybody’s looking 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 goes in, you have to turn the page in 10 seconds, when the puck drops. That, I think has been the gift of him that’s made him great, the ability to turn the page.”
The Lightning, along with Vasilevskiy, did an excellent job of turning the page after the lopsided blowout loss and now we’re on the verge of finding out if the two-time defending champions can even the series or if they’ll be facing elimination on Friday night as the series shifts back to Denver.
Vasilevskiy is going to need to play at an elite level as the series resumes, given how the Avalanche have responded to losses previously with outstanding efforts in Games 3 and 6 of their second-round series with the St. Louis Blues.
“Yeah, we’ve just got to keep peppering him,” said Avalanche defenceman Devon Toews. “We feel like if we put enough chances on him that we'll get our opportunities to score and we feel like we're getting into good areas to score right now.
“He's a big goalie. He's very athletic. And that's why he's one of the best in the world right now. And it's a challenge every night to try to get pucks past him. We’ve just got to hit our targets.”
Lightning forward Nick Paul had ample experience playing against Vasilevskiy prior to being acquired from the Ottawa Senators at the NHL trade deadline but he’s been impressed by witnessing how the goalie operates on a daily basis.
“He’s always dialed in. I think that’s what makes him such a good goalie,” said Paul, who delivered the game-winner in Game 3 despite battling through a lower-body issue. “No days off for him. He’s always focused. He’s taking everything serious. Then, when game time comes, you guys see it.
“Whenever there’s a big save that needs to be made, he makes it. He’s just unbelievable. He’s the best goalie out there. You can tell with his routines and how he takes care of himself every single day that there’s a reason why he’s the best.”
Vasilevskiy’s ability to steal games is something the Lightning have leaned on numerous times, especially during the past several seasons during their runs to the Stanley Cup final.
They know how valuable he is to their success and they never take him for granted.
“It certainly gives us confidence back there. He's a special player that doesn't come around very often,” said Lightning defenceman Zach Bogosian. “So we're obviously very fortunate to have him and he's been the backbone of this organization for as long as he's been here. It's impressive to see.”