Lightning’s ‘Big Cat’ looks to tame the Panthers

TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy admitted something was wrong with the Lightning in their first-round playoff series against the Leafs.

It showed in the way they struggled to close games early in the series. Tampa Bay was outscored 11-6 in the third period through the first five games and entered Game 6 on the verge of elimination because of it.

“We didn’t have much luck in the third period,” Vasilevskiy said Monday, the eve of the start of the second-round series against the Panthers. “And that has also been a problem all season. For some reason, we just couldn’t close games like we did last year. In the playoffs, the first games, we weren’t really successful. But the last two games, I thought we were playing like a Lightning playoff team.

Vasilevskiy played a huge role in the team’s ability to come out of a 3-2 series hole to beat the Leafs. He stopped 43 of the last 44 shots he faced in the series, including all nine in overtime in Game 6 and 30 of 31 in Game 7 do-or-die.

Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) is stopped by Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during the third period of Game 7 on Saturday in Toronto. [ NATHAN DENETTE | AP ]

“I thought the first games we didn’t have much emotion,” Vasilevskiy said. “It’s been a problem, like, all season. We gave so much energy and emotions in the last two (last) years that we didn’t have much time to recover (from) everything.

“But I thought in Game 6 we were able to find that next level positivity and emotion. Also, our fans, they give us so much too, great vibes, so it was a huge overtime win. And in Game 7, I think we played our best hockey so far in this playoffs.

Vasilevskiy’s numbers against Toronto — an .897 save percentage and 3.04 goals-against average — may not have been his best compared to his recent postseason excellence, but his knack for performing clutch saves in key moments played a big role in winning the series.

“We are spoiled, and I think everyone is spoiled watching him play,” defender Victor Hedman said. “It’s easy to look at stats and stuff, but some of the saves he made throughout the series were key.”

Two moments come quickly to mind.

With the Lightning leading 1-0 early in the second period of Game 2, Toronto pressured the net and Tampa Bay obstructed the middle but struggled to gain possession. The Leafs took three shots on goal during a seven-second streak, and on the final shot – Timothy Liljegren’s wrist from the slot – Vasilevskiy made a glove save to get a whistle. On the next shift, Corey Perry scored on a run to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead. They never looked back in a 5-3 win that tied the series at one game apiece.

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Then there was Vasilevskiy’s blocker save on an Auston Matthews wrist late in the second period of Game 7 which led to a run the other way which resulted in the game-winning Nick Paul goal. . Mitch Marner found Matthews in a rush and Matthews fired a shot from the top of the left circle which Vasilevskiy reacted quickly to push back with his blocker.

The Lightning also played a more solid defense in front of Vasilevskiy, getting into Toronto’s shooting lanes and preventing him from taking away his vision in net. Going back to overtime in Game 6, the Lightning have blocked 32 shots in their last four periods against the Leafs.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), top, blocks a shot on goal as Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot (15) tries to deflect the puck while Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) looks on during the first period of the fourth game.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), top, blocks a shot on goal as Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot (15) tries to deflect the puck while Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) looks on during the first period of the fourth game. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Vasilevskiy said he expects to see the same against the Panthers, another team with tons of offensive skills. Vasilevskiy has seen a lot of Florida, and the Panthers have had more success against him than most. Since the start of the 2020-21 season, Vasilevskiy has a 3.00 goals-against average and .914 save percentage against them.

“Huge challenge, obviously, like Toronto, just super talented up front and a team that scores the most,” Vasilevskiy said. “It will be a big challenge for us. I thought we were pretty good against Toronto, although they were still scoring a lot. I’ll have to play D, I guess, more. I’ll have to do it too.

“As you saw against Toronto, a lot of goals were scored because I couldn’t see anything. I’m pretty sure that was the game plan for them, to be up front. They did a very good job. Blocking shots from our guys is a huge help for me. That’s why we only allowed one goal in Game 7. We have to keep it that way.

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