DENVER—When Andrei Vasilevskiy was a youngster growing up in Russia, he faced an issue. He wanted to play hockey, but he didn’t want to do all that skating.
“I didn’t want to skate on the ice too much,” the Tampa Bay goaltender said. “I thought that goalies had the easiest position in hockey. I was wrong. It’s the hardest position ever.”
The hardest parts may not be the technical aspects—positioning and puck tracking. Vasilevskiy has nailed those issues, in part thanks to his father, Andrei Sr., who was also a goalie. It’s the mental side of the game that can wear netminders down. While some say they can shake off bad goals or purport their confidence is not shaken while going through a bad stretch, the truth is often the opposite. In Vasilevskiy’s case, the evidence backs up his claims that he is quick to forget a bad outing.
“I guess it’s all about the experience because, when you’re younger, you take every goal like the end of the world,” he said. “But when you play a lot of games — obviously at some point the team on the other side is going to score; it’s not like you can get shutouts every game — (you) just shake it off and play your best game.”
At the opposite end of the ice in the Stanley Cup final, Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper landed in net for a different reason. I have converted from forward to age 10.
“I liked the idea that you didn’t have to leave the ice,” he said. “I didn’t like between shifts being on the bench. When I was playing goalie, I got to play the whole game. So I kind of stuck with it.”
As the Stanley Cup final plays out, both goalies are going to have a huge say in the outcome.
In Colorado’s 4-3 win in Game 1, the Avalanche attacked Vasilevskiy much like the Maple Leafs did in the first game of their opening-round series and were rewarded with early goals. Once Tampa Bay got going in the second period, life for Kuemper got hard but his team managed to protect him better in the third period before getting an early overtime goal.
“Colorado is a team that can overcome maybe some average goaltending. I don’t think they can overcome below-average goaltending,” said former NHL goalie Marty Biron, now an analyst on Buffalo Sabers games. “I wouldn’t put Kuemper in a category of goalies that are going to give you just average. I think he’s above average and can definitely hold his own.
Kuemper acknowledges he’s not the best goalie in the series.
“(Vasilevskiy) is the best goalie in the world,” he said. “I can’t worry about trying to outplay him. I’ve just got to go out there and play my game and do what I can to help the team win.”
At 27, Vasilevskiy has two Stanley Cup rings, one Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs, and one Vezina Trophy, with a second possibly on its way when the last of the post-season award winners are announced next week.
One of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, the Lightning don’t panic when they get down in a game or series is that unflappable six-foot-three, 225-pound fellow wearing No. 88 in net. He has played every minute of the Tampa Bay’s last three playoff runs.
“Vassy, obviously, is a difference-maker,” defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. “He is the best goalie in the world. He’s our best player. So he’s a difference-maker and he can steal games. He can win games by himself.”
Biron likes the way Vasilevskiy plays.
“Even with an underwhelming second half of the season and an underwhelming first five-and-a-half games of the Toronto series, what he’s shown me is his ability to get emotionally involved and engaged in the games,” Biron said. “He turned something on in Game 6 against Toronto when it was 3-3 and he hasn’t really looked back. His ability from him to make secondary and even third saves, rebound saves, lateral movement, inside plays — he’s got a skill set that has been really shining through.
Even as the media tried to pick apart Vasilevskiy’s performance in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, his teammates would have none of it.
“You know Vasilevskiy can be better than that, the first two goals were not characteristic of him …” a question started, before Lightning forward Pat Maroon interrupted.
“I’m not going to answer that,” Maroon said. “I’m not going to feed the beast. Our goalie is the best goalie in the world.”
Vasilevskiy wasn’t getting into the analysis of his play, either. It was mentioned that he seemed to find another level against the Leafs in the third period with Tampa’s season on the ropes.
“I don’t think I played bad the first few games against Toronto,” he said. “We just gave up a few short-handed goals, which can’t happen in the playoffs. But Game 6, we were at home, our crowd gave us momentum, we were one goal away from being eliminated, but we won in overtime and, since then, we’ve played solid hockey.”
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