It is usually never just one person’s fault when a team loses a hockey game. Such is the case when the Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 on Saturday night (April 22) when defenseman Morgan Rielly’s wrist shot got past Andrei Vasilevksiy to give the Leafs the Game 3 win in overtime. There were a lot of storylines that came from Game 3 that figured into the outcome. But there is one thing that is now clear: if the Lightning hope to advance to the second round of the playoffs, they need their star goaltender to play better.
Frustration was the keyword for the Lightning in Game 3. On Saturday night, they decisively dictated the action for most of the game and had a goal taken away due to a quick whistle from the referee. They did almost everything they needed to win except for scoring the most goals by the final whistle. But after three games, it has become clear that despite whatever frustration occurred in that game, the all-world goaltender has just been ordinary. The Lightning need him to be better.
Struggles Against Toronto
With his 23 saves on Saturday night, Vasilevskiy’s save percentage (SV%) through ten career playoff games against the Maple Leafs has dropped to .874. Even if you toss out the two blowouts from the past two years, his numbers don’t measure up to his performances against every other team he has faced in his playoff career. Toss out Game 2 stats, and his other numbers in the playoffs are still not the former Vezina Trophy winner usually produces. He had a .852 SV% in Game 3 and a .903 SV% in Game 1.
For comparison, his career playoff SV% is .921, with the last three seasons having numbers of .927/.937/.922. Aside from the numbers, even the simple “eye test” will show that Vasilevskiy is not at the top of his game, as on most nights, the 28-year-old would have stopped either of Rielly’s overtime winner or Ryan O’Reilly’s game-tying goal with a minute left in regulation, if not both.
Fatigue May Be a Factor
It has been well documented that Vasilevskiy has played a bunch of hockey over the past few seasons, as the Lightning have reached the Stanley Cup Final in the past three seasons. Coming into this playoff season, he has been in 73 postseason games, far more than any other goaltender during that span. Saturday night’s contest marks his 100th consecutive playoff appearance with the same team, which puts him fourth all-time in NHL history. Combine that with his regular season appearances, and that adds up to a lot of time on the ice.
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The Lightning have attempted to give him more time off during the regular season as he played less in favor of backup Brian Elliott and took some practices off in favor of some conditioning and other activities that would help offset possible fatigue issues. Even with this, Vasilevskiy and the rest of the Lightning roster have had their ups and downs this season as they have had to deal with the fatigue factor. The valid question remains whether he has enough left in the tank to help the Lightning get to a fourth straight Stanley Cup Final.
Help in Front of the Net Needed
Even the best goaltender in the world will need some help in front of him. Game 2 was a perfect example of that, as the shorthanded Lightning gave up far too many high-danger scoring chances to a highly potent offensive unit. In last year’s playoffs, Vasilevskiy was part of some lopsided losses, such as Game 1 against the Maple Leafs and in the first two games against the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Final.
In those losses, the Lightning poorly defended the front of the net and had turnovers that led to breakaways and odd-man rushes. These were also issues that plagued them at times during the regular season. When they take care of these issues, it allows Vasilevskiy to perform at his best, such as the games when three of his four shutouts came against playoff teams, the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Islanders, and the Avalanche (from ‘Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy rested, strong for another playoff run’, Tampa Bay Times, April 17, 2023).
Related: Lightning’s Success at Home Could Propel Them in Playoffs
There was a reason why his peers in the NHL Players Association poll selected Vasilevskiy as the top goaltending choice if you need to win one game for the second straight season: they all know when he is playing well, he is a game-changer. To this point in their playoff series against the Maple Leafs, that has not happened. But if the Lightning want to move into the second round, their all-world goaltender needs to play to the level that he is capable of.