It would be overstating it to say this was the game of the year in the Atlantic Division, but it was pretty important. The game pitted the #1 Tampa Bay Lightning (now 25-7-1) against the #2 Toronto Maple Leafs (now 21-10-1). Coming into the game, fans from both teams were eager to watch their team’s high-powered offense go against the others. Many expected a high-scoring game, and the Over/Under was 6.5.
Well, it didn’t happen. Although the Lightning scored four goals, the game wasn’t about the offense at all. The story of this game was Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stood on his head, his elbow, his back, and perhaps a number of other body parts to absolutely stone the hard-working, but under-rewarded Maple Leafs.
It wasn’t like the Maple Leafs didn’t try. They sent 49 on goal, but only one found its way home. In one amazing play – the tweet to my phone said it was the save of the year and, my eyes won’t deny it – Vasilevskiy robbed Patrick Marleau twice on the same shot. Once with his glove and once with his foot. The announcer called it a goal, and a thousand times in a row it would have been. Not tonight.
On this great play by both players, Vasilevskiy blocked Marleau’s first shot; and, never taking his eyes off the puck, as it was dribbling into the net behind him, he stretched out his right skate and slid the puck from the goal line to the front of the net.
It was like that all game long — save after save after save. After Kasperi Kapanen scored just five minutes into the game on a horrible pass from Nikita Kucherov, it was all Maple Leafs. Except it wasn’t. Vasilevskiy stole this one, plain and simple.
This Game Came Out of Nowhere
No one really saw this coming. Five days ago CBS sports reported, “Vasilevskiy isn’t expected to return for a few weeks, but it’s encouraging that the elite netminder is back on the ice in any capacity.”
Then, as late as yesterday, Vasilevskiy was supposed to dress, but to be the backup. He had missed 15 games because of a broken foot, and backup Louis Domingue had been great replacing him. In fact, the Lightning are now on an eight-game winning streak and lead the Maple Leafs by eight points. Coach Jon Cooper had questioned Vasilevskiy’s cardio as a reason not to start him. Obviously, Cooper was wrong. Vasilevskiy cardio(d) great all night long.
Many of his 48 saves were stunners. In addition, the unlucky Maple Leafs hit the iron three times in the first period. Vasilevskiy made a great pad save on John Tavares’ backhand late in the first period. He stopped Nazem Kadri’s deflection in the middle of the second period. He made the save of the season, using both glove and skate, on Marleau’s point-blank shot early in the third. Get my point: late – middle – early, Vasilevskiy, Vasilevskiy, Vasilevskiy.
In a rare positive for the Maple Leafs, Marleau played in his 738th consecutive regular-season game to pass Jay Bouwmeester for the seventh-longest streak in NHL history. Congratulations from The Hockey Writers.
The Lone Ranger Rides Again
In summary, the Maple Leafs didn’t play badly. The Lightning didn’t play great. But, there was no chance the Maple Leafs were going to win this game. It was close until the Lightning scored three times on 12 shots in the second period – two goals with less than 40 seconds left. Andersen wasn’t on his game; but, even if he were, the Maple Leafs would not have won. Vasilevskiy was simply too good.
Those of you old enough to remember the 1950’s television show “The Lone Ranger” will remember this story line. The Lone Ranger rides into town, saves the day, and rides away. Townspeople, watching in awe, turn to each other and ask: “Who was that Masked Man?”
More than half a century later, the same can be asked about the Lightning’s Russian goaltender: “Who was that Masked Man?”