WASHINGTON — Andrei Vasilevskiy has said he prefers to let his play on the ice do his talking for him. On Thursday, he did just that.
Vasilevskiy played the way the Tampa Bay Lightning needed their goaltender to play, stopping 36 of 38 shots and allowing his team the leeway to play poorly and still come out with a win. He played the way a No. 1 goaltender plays in the biggest moments, under the kind of pressure that can sink a lesser player.
He played the way he hadn’t played in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final, both losses at home to the Washington Capitals. In those games he had struggled, and those struggles had given rise to questions and concerns.
He silenced those in Game 4 in a 4-2 win just as he had in Game 3 on Tuesday. And in doing so, he helped the Lightning even the best-of-7 series at 2-2 heading back to Tampa for Game 5 on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS).
And then Vasilevskiy kept silent. It was as if he was out to prove what he said earlier in the week to NHL.com, “It’s better to do than speak.”
He certainly did.
This was a game in which the Lightning did not have a shot on net from 9:16 of the first period to 10:11 of the second period, an incredible span of 20:55 without a chance on Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. It was a game in which the Capitals put 38 pucks on Vasilevskiy, many of them excellent chances that he turned away. It was a game in which the Lightning barely survived.
And they survived because of Vasilevskiy, who had allowed 10 goals in Games 1 and 2, a fact that seemed not to bode well for the Lightning.
“He didn’t play great in the first two,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “He played well in the second two.”
That might be underselling it just a bit.
“I remember after Game 2 and the questions were coming from [the media] and I felt it was the questioning of Vasilevskiy,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We don’t. He’s been the guy for us. You love your games when you don’t really need your goaltender and your team is playing well in front of you, but when you don’t have your ‘A’ game, you need your goalie to have his ‘A’ game, and he sure did.”
Because save for Vasilevskiy, the Lightning would not have been in position to score the game-winning goal at 11:57 of the third period, six seconds after the Capitals killed off a power play.
Alex Killorn backhanded a puck past Holtby after a backhand pass from Ondrej Palat behind the net. It was a play that started when Mikhail Sergachev kept the puck in, and sent it around the boards to Palat, starting the sequence that ended with the Lightning celebrating.
He was dominant enough that, after the game, Lightning forward Steven Stamkos could get away with a little humor.
“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t think he played very well tonight.”
Then, turning series, Stamkos said, “When you get this far in the playoffs, you’re playing such good teams and there’s going to be nights like tonight where it just felt like everything we did didn’t go as planned, especially in that second period, and Vasy was there to bail us out.”
It was especially dire at the end of the first period when the Lightning, up 2-1 on goals by Brayden Point at 5:38 and Stamkos at 8:32 on the power play, took three consecutive penalties.
Forward Yanni Gourde went for interference at 11:20. Then 1:11 after that penalty expired, defenseman Victor Hedman went for slashing. Then 1:25 after that penalty expired, Nikita Kucherov went for hooking.
The Lightning killed them all, and then could not regain their rhythm through much of the second period, creating even more chances for Washington and even more pressure on Vasilevskiy.
The Capitals got two goals, a Dmitry Orlov shot from the left face-off dot after T.J. Oshie corralled the rebound at 4:28 of the first, and a wrister from Evgeny Kuznetsov on a backhand feed from Alex Ovechkin at 5:18 of the second. Then Vasilevskiy shut the door.
“That’s why he’s one of, if not the best goalie in the world,” Stamkos said. “He’s given us a chance throughout the year when we haven’t had our best, and tonight was another example of that.”
It was a game in which the Lightning did not have a single shot on net for the equivalent of a full period, for more than 20 consecutive minutes, and which they still won. That doesn’t happen without great goaltending. It doesn’t happen without Vasilevskiy.
It doesn’t happen without 36 saves, highlighted by a sequence in which Vasilevskiy made a stop on Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson at 5:39 of the third period, only to see Brett Connolly redirect the rebound back at him. Vasilevskiy stabbed at the batted puck, knocking it out of danger.
It was brilliant. It was crucial. It was what the Lightning needed.
And it left Hedman needing just one perfect word to assess his goaltender’s performance: “Unbelievable,” he said.
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