There are few players more important to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent success than Andrei Vasilevskiy. Since taking over the starting goaltender role from Ben Bishop back in 2017, Vasilevskiy has been an absolute stud for the team. In his first full year as an NHL starter, he turned in a Vezina-caliber season, winning 44 games with a .920 save percentage. His start to the 2018-19 season held similar success, with the young Russian goaltender posting nine wins and a .927 save percentage in 13 starts.
After this incredible start, Vasilevskiy seemed primed to make another run at the Vezina Trophy while carrying the Lightning back to the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, this plan hit a sudden wall when it was announced that he had broken his foot during practice, meaning that he will be out of the lineup for more than a month.
This injury could be devastating to Tampa Bay, since losing Vasilevskiy for any length of time will put a massive strain on backup Louis Domingue while challenging the franchise’s lackluster goaltending depth. However, this doesn’t mean that the Lightning are dead in the water. In fact, one can argue that this sort of adversity will help the team become a more complete unit before they reach the playoff gauntlet.
Domingue Can Hold Down the Fort for Vasilevskiy
Part of the reason why the Lightning can survive this injury is due to their trust in Domingue. While he may not be the same caliber of goaltender as Vasilevskiy, he still is a more than capable backup who can find ways to win games as a temporary starter. This is very different to years past when Tampa Bay lacked a consistent backup that could pull them through any length of time as a starter.
Even if Domingue is only able to win half of his starts, that will be able to keep Tampa Bay firmly in the playoff hunt, especially after they stockpiled 25 points in their first 18 games of the season. Sure, this may not be enough to win the Atlantic division, but ultimately, that doesn’t matter to the team. As long as Domingue can keep the Lightning in a playoff spot, there’s no reason to panic or rush Vasilevskiy back from his injury.
Lightning Have to Improve Without Vasilevskiy
One positive that could come out of this injury is that the Lightning will no longer be able to over-rely on Vasilevskiy to bail them out of bad situations. Even though they have been winning games to start off the year, the team has been far from flawless in doing so. They have a tendency of making simple mistakes early in games that forces their goaltender to make a difficult save or give up a goal against. This has caused the team to fall behind by multiple goals most nights before they are able to get going.
While losing Vasilevskiy won’t necessarily help this situation, it could force the team in front of him to be more aware of their gameplan. Instead of making a risky play on the puck, they may try to play a more defensive game that could help Domingue instead. This could lead to more defensive plays like the one Ryan McDonagh made against the Pittsburgh Penguin that saved a sure goal.
When you are struck with adversity like losing a starting goaltender, it can be a unifying moment that brings the entire team together to build a stronger unit. If the Lightning can improve their play and keep winning with Domingue in net, it will only make them more resilient come playoff season.
So, instead of seeing this a worst-case scenario, it should be viewed as an opportunity. An opportunity not only for Domingue to showcase that he can be a starter in the NHL but for the Lightning to continue improving their game in their quest for a Stanley Cup. To put it simply, if the Lightning can win with their backup goaltender in net, they should be able to dominate when Vasilevskiy returns.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.