On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Andrei Vasilevskiy put on a dominant display in Game 5, clinching the series with a 1-0 shutout. After the game, he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, presented to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The 26-year-old goaltender was surprised to win the award and was quick to praise his teammates:
“It’s obviously the whole team deserves it for sure. Just to have five shutouts in one playoffs, it’s all about team for sure. We were able to shut down the teams four times in a row in clinching games, just amazing. Can’t say more. It’s not about me, it’s about our team.”
Vasilevskiy’s world-class performance in the playoffs was just a continuation of his remarkable play during the regular season. Quite frankly, he has been the Lightning’s most valuable player from start to finish. Although humble in his response to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, there is no doubt he was the deserving winner of such a prestigious award.
Shutting the Door on Opponents
If you want to close out a series, Vasilevskiy is your guy. His shutout in Game 5 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final was his fifth straight in a series-clinching game. He is the first goaltender to record a series-clinching shutout four times in a single postseason. Moreover, Vasilevskiy, Chris Osgood, and Clint Benedict are the only three backstops in NHL history to have five series-clinching shutouts. Vasilevskiy is also just the third goaltender to post a Stanley Cup-clinching shutout twice. Benedict and Bernie Parent are the only other netminders to do so.
Vasilevskiy recorded every win for the Lightning over their last two postseason runs, but maybe even more impressive was his ability to bounce back after a loss. The Lightning have gone a perfect 15-0-0 after a loss since they were swept in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Although that requires a total team effort, that streak doesn’t happen without Vasilevskiy between the pipes.
A Cut Above the Rest
Vasilevskiy led the league in save percentage, at .937, and shutouts, with five, this postseason. His 1.90 goals-against average (GAA) was second only to Jack Campbell, who only played in seven playoff games. According to Evolving-Hockey, Vasilevskiy also led the league in goals saved above expected (GSAx) and it wasn’t particularly close. He had a GSAx of 17.46 while Connor Hellebuyck had the second-best GSAx of 8.87. The last goaltender to win the Conn Smythe Trophy was Jonathan Quick in 2012, who posted a GSAx of 12.68 that postseason.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the other member of the Lightning who garnered Conn Smythe Trophy attention. Nikita Kucherov had an outstanding postseason, leading the league with 32 points. This is the second consecutive playoff run where he scored 30 or more points, a feat few players have accomplished. His production was slightly diminished during the Stanley Cup Final, the only series in which he was held off of the scoresheet in three games. This could be attributed to the rib fracture he suffered in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals against the New York Islanders.
Vasilevskiy was not perfect, no one is. However, he was consistently a cut above the rest during the playoffs. Maintaining his elite level of play throughout each series is what separates him from every other player this postseason and why he rightfully earned the Conn Smythe Trophy. Kucherov agrees, too (from ‘Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov delivers legendary shirtless presser after Stanley Cup victory’, New York Post, July 8, 2021).
Unmatched Work Ethic
As fans, we get to watch the best hockey players in the world compete against one another. What we don’t get to see, though, is what it takes behind the scenes for them to master their craft. One of the best insights into what it takes comes from those who do get to see the work they put in day in and day out, their teammates. After their Stanley Cup win on Wednesday, Vasilevskiy’s teammates had a lot to say about his work ethic. During the postgame press conference, forward Pat Maroon said:
“His numbers show when there is a loss and you come back the next game his numbers are just unbelievable. The thing is with Vasy he competes every single night. His work ethic is out of control. You guys don’t see that side of it, how he competes, how he works, how he takes care of himself outside the rink. The second and third opportunities, the way he competes in his crease is just truly remarkable. I’m very proud of Vasy. He deserves it. That’s why he’s the best goalie in the league.”
“Just the absolute competitive gamer that we know he is. Night in, night out, (the) backbone of this team.”
Kucherov has a unique perspective on Vasilivskiy’s career, watching him play since his teenage years. Echoing Maroon’s thoughts on Vasilevskiy’s work ethic, Kucherov said,
“His compete level is as high as it can be. I remember him when he was 16. He was always the guy that cares about the game and wants to be better and he wants to be No. 1. And, as we can see, he is.”
Vasilevskiy has come a long way since he was thrust into the spotlight during the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, replacing Ben Bishop due to injury. His development has been instrumental to the Lightning’s success in recent seasons.
Passing the Torch
To say that the Lightning wouldn’t be where they are today without Vasilevskiy would be an understatement. Time and time again this season, he made timely and critical saves to keep the Lightning in games. One of the best examples of this was in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Canadiens were having a phenomenal game and looked as though they were going to even up the series. However, Vasilevskiy stood on his head, making 42 saves on 43 shots. The Lightning took the lead late in the second period and were able to hold off the Canadiens to take a 2-0 series lead. Without Vasilevskiy in net, that game, and maybe even the series, would have gone much differently.
The 2021 Stanley Cup Final showcased a world-class goaltending matchup between Vasilevskiy and Carey Price. Not long ago, Price was considered by many to be the best goaltender in the world. At the very least, he is one of the best goaltenders of his generation. However, like head coach Jon Cooper said, the torch has been passed to Vasilevskiy and this series was almost symbolic of that. Vasilevskiy was the most valuable player during the playoffs and is, without a doubt, the best goaltender in the world.
Andrew is a freelance writer who covers the Tampa Bay Lightning at The Hockey Writers. He is a passionate hockey fan who grew up near Tampa, Florida. He is a husband, father to a Golden Retriever, and is studying to be a Physician Assistant. Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Mulville