It was 2016. Vasilevskiy was 22, in his third season as goalie Ben Bishop’s understudy. He hadn’t played more than 24 games in a season. His most notable NHL achievement had been his surprise start in Game 4 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final for an ailing Bishop, where he lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.
As this was Ben Bishop, he was ailing again in December 2016 for the Lightning, who pushed Vasilevskiy into starting-goalie duty. He responded to the call with a rather terrible stretch of hockey, losing 12 of 13 appearances that included seven consecutive defeats. Twice he gave up five goals. Once he even gave up six. It was bad.
“It was just embarrassing,” Vasilevskiy would say the following season. “The worst thing is that I tried to do everything right, and when you just keep doing what you’re doing and you just can’t stop the puck… It’s just one of those stretches you can’t control. That was probably the worst moment of my life last year. The big lesson is that, after good games, you can’t think, ‘Oh because I won last game, I will for sure win the next game, it’s going to be easy.’ No, it doesn’t work like that in the NHL. It was a big lesson.”
Coach Jon Cooper watched his young netminder struggle but came to appreciate how he emerged from it. To become the backbone of this Lightning team that has designs on a Stanley Cup championship, Vasilevskiy needed that trial by flamethrower.
“Vasy had to play 10 games in a row, a couple of back-to-backs, and it was a little bit of a struggle for him,” Cooper said. “I think he learned to turn the page. Even though he struggled in that 10-game stretch, he started to come out of it. He learned what it takes to be a starter.”
Those lessons helped him when he became the starter after Bishop was traded, a status that carried over into this season. They helped him through another frustrating stretch near the end of the regular season. They kept him calm after the Washington Capitals took two games from him on home ice in the Eastern Conference finals, with Vasilevskiy surrendering 10 goals.
Just turn the page. Forget about it. Turn the page.
“Good or bad game doesn’t matter. Start over again and again. That’s how you get success,” Vasilevskiy said.
The next two games, at Washington, Vasilevskiy made the difference. He had 36 saves in the Lightning’s Game 3 victory as his team played confidently in front of him. He was brilliant in their Game 4 win, again making 36 saves as he served as the team’s best penalty killer in snuffing out four Capitals power plays.
Did Vasilevskiy deserve credit for that Game 4 victory?
“Oh, I didn’t think he played very well tonight,” captain Steven Stamkos said with a sly smile.
“No, 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. That’s why he’s one of, if not the best, goalie in the world. He’s given us a chance throughout the year when we haven’t had our best and tonight was another example of that.”
Franchise goalies are rarely found where other franchise players typically are.
In the past 10 years, there have been eight goalies taken in the first round of the NHL draft, including Vasilevskiy at No. 19 overall in 2012. Two of them have never played a game in the league, and most of them have had just a cup of coffee; outside of Malcolm Subban’s 24 games, Vasilevskiy’s 155 games in the past four seasons are the only success story among them.
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How the Lightning came about to draft him is hilarious, in hindsight: The Lightning traded forward Steve Downie to the Avalanche for defenseman Kyle Quincey and then traded Quincey to the Detroit Red Wings for what became the 19th overall pick. So, in essence, they flipped Downie for what is now a Vezina Trophy candidate. On the ever-growing list of shrewd decisions by Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman, this one ranks highly. As does the decision not to give into temptation and trade Vasilevskiy during his development — for example, when the Florida Panthers were considering trading the first-round pick that eventually became Aaron Ekblad.
Part of the reason Yzerman kept Vasilevskiy was his vision to build a Russian core subset on the Lightning, after watching how the heralded Russian Five powered Stanley Cup championships during Yzerman’s playing days with the Red Wings. While no one was ever going to confuse Nikita Nesterov with Sergei Fedorov, Yzerman was creating a comfortable situation for a young Russian like Vasilevskiy to transition into the league. That included having NHL goalie Evgeni Nabokov around, briefly as a player but also as a mentor with whom Vasilevskiy still keeps in touch.
“Yes, Zhenya helped me a lot. I can say many kind words about him. We had a lot of good conversations, about the game and just our life in the NHL,” Vasilevskiy told Sport-Express, via Raw Charge, of Nabokov.
He still isn’t perfectly relaxed with aspects of life in the NHL. In the Eastern Conference finals, for example, the Lightning chose not to bring Vasilevskiy in front of a dozen cameras and two dozen reporters, instead opting to have him meet with one “pool reporter” to collect quotes from him. It was out of respect for Vasilevskiy, who remains a little intimidated by media swarms around his dressing-room stall.
On the ice, it’s a different Vasilevskiy. The cameras are far away, the reporters even farther. He makes saves that look easier than they should be, a product of his acute positioning. At 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, he takes up the net with his size, covers the rest with his athleticism. He finished with a 2.62 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist in his first full season as the anointed starter, playing 65 games.
“I don’t think there was any doubt in anybody that he had the ability to be a starting goalie. I think over the course of the season, he proved that. One of the best in the league, and the world. And he’s still young,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “He’s got a tremendous focus, and the mental part of his game is very strong. Nothing I’ve seen from a young goalie like that.”
Stamkos said it’s easy to forget that Vasilevskiy is only 23.
“Sometimes you forget how young he is because he has that maturity,” he said. “He just expects a lot. You see his work ethic every day in practice. You guys don’t get to see what goes on in the room, but his mental preparation, his physical preparation, he wants to be the best all the time. He doesn’t want to give up a goal at all, including in practice. That’s the mentality he has and that’s why he’s so good.”
This isn’t Vasilevskiy’s first playoff action. He had 12 games to his credit prior to this run, including the entirety of Tampa Bay’s conference final loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and that Stanley Cup Final Game 4 loss to the Blackhawks, where he stopped 17 of 19 shots.
“That was wild,” he said. “I was young and had a lot of thoughts in my head during that game. If I had known things that I know now two years ago, I think I would have won that game.”
It’s the kind of thing you hear from a player who knows he’s improved and knows that every challenge that’s been presented to him has been conquered in some way. Like rebounding from a losing streak or taking the crease for a championship contender after three seasons as a backup or losing the first two games of a series only to come roaring back.
“I know he takes a lot of things very personal and he wants to be the difference-maker every night,” Stamkos said. “We haven’t strayed away from the tons of confidence that we have in Vasy since Day 1. When we see him playing that well, it gives confidence to everyone.”
Everyone, in turn, wants to give Vasilevskiy confidence in them. Like when the Lightning stopped giving away odd-man rushes like they were samples at a mall food court and in turn stopped hanging their goalie out to dry to the tune of 10 goals in the first two games against Washington.
“I think we always feel like we owe him,” Stralman said ahead of Saturday’s Game 5. “He’s our best player. He’s always there, he’s always there for us and tonight we did a good job in front of him. I think that gives him some confidence, too, that he knows we’re on and that’s the way it should be.”
For Vasilevskiy, this is the way it should be. Experiencing the best moments, born from the worst ones. Providing the kind of effort that lays the foundation, both mentally and physically, to bring his team a championship.
The last time the Lightning won one was in 2004. Vasilevskiy was 10 years old. But he was aware of the netminder on that team: Nikolai Khabibulin, the first Russian-born goalie to hoist the Cup.
“As you might have noticed, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup with a Russian goalie,” Vasilevskiy told Sport-Express.
“I hope the tradition repeats itself this year.”