Andrei Vasilevskiy slid to his right, the puck rocketing from Alex Ovechkin’s stick and hitting the 6-foot-3, 207-pound goaltender in the chest.
The Washington Capitals’ captain eyed the sliver of open net, stood poised at point-blank range to Vasilevskiy’s left, ready to net a tying goal late in the first period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at Capital One Arena. But the 23-year-old goalie had an answer for the Russian superstar.
And for a moment — and nearly the next 40 minutes after — the criticism that had peppered Vasilevskiy in the first two games of this series came to a screeching halt. Yes, he gave up 10 goals in the games, but on Tuesday, the net was his with 36 saves on 38 shots.
“It wasn’t really fair for him the first couple and we really didn’t do a good job in front of him so it was big,” defenseman Anton Stralman said. “He played great and I think he liked the fact that we played a good team game and structure and made his life a little bit easier.”
Vasilevskiy’s first-period save was key — the Capitals have had a knack for scoring late in periods in this series. The stop allowed Tampa Bay to enter the first intermission with a lead. And with the big-time save came two big-time plays for the Lightning, which scored twice in the first few minutes of the second period en route to a 4-2 victory.
Vasilevskiy had come under scrutiny after yielding six goals in the Game 2 loss, but his teammates and coaches remained committed to a goalie many view as a Vezina Trophy front-runner for the league’s top goaltender.
“They got some looks, but he was right there. He has been outstanding for us all year and he was great tonight,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
Vasilevskiy allowed 10 goals in a five-game first-round playoff series and 12 in the second-round series against the Boston Bruins. None of that mattered Tuesday.
Vasilevskiy finished the regular season with a 44-17-3 record, a 2.62 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. He also set a Lightning record for wins, road wins (18), shutouts (8), road shutouts (6) and saves (1,908).
“I just thought he was in the zone tonight right from the get go,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said. “But our team helped him tonight.”
Vasilevskiy’s solid night was dinged midway through the second period, when forward Brett Connolly’s one-timer from the left circle cut the Capitals’ deficit to 3-1, providing a glimmer of hope for the hosts. But a crucial three-on-one stop from Vasilevskiy on defenseman Christian Djoos minutes later turned momentum back to Tampa Bay as Vasilevskiy rebounded from two troubling performances at Amalie Arena.
The Capitals’ second goal came after Washington played with an empty net late in the third period and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored from a sharp angle along the line to cut the Lightning lead to 4-2. The Capitals kept their net empty after that, and Vasilevskiy once again stopped a flurry of shots.
In Game 1, Vasilevskiy allowed four goals on 25 shots and was replaced by backup goalie Louis Domingue to start the third period. In Game 2, he allowed six goals on 37 shots. Twenty-seven of the 37 shots came in the final two periods after the Capitals took a 2-1 lead. But in Game 3, with Tampa Bay shuffling its forward lines to get better matchups against the Capitals’ top line, the Lightning rolled.
But as the final horn sounded in D.C. and Vasilevskiy skated off the ice as teammates went over to pat him on the helmet, the Lightning had changed the momentum of the series.
“That is when you need your best players to step up,” Stralman said. “I liked the way we played in front of him and I think that would give him more confidence too that he knows the team is on tonight and we are doing our job.”
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