Jon Cooper didn’t blame Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Tampa Bay Lightning digging a deep hole early in the Eastern Conference final.
Two games and two losses brought plenty of criticism of the young Russian goaltender. Cooper wasn’t thrilled about that.
”The questions were coming from the other side of the table, and I felt it was the questioning of Vasilevskiy,” the Tampa Bay coach said. ”We don’t. He’s been the guy for us.”
Vasilevskiy is the guy who turned the series around for the Lightning, who now lead the Capitals 3-2 and can eliminate Washington on the road in Game 6 on Monday night and move on to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. After a 6.00 goals-against average and .839 save percentage in Games 1 and 2, he has a 2.00 GAA and .943 save percentage since as the series’ biggest difference-maker.
”Just tried to stay positive and play my game,” Vasilevskiy said last week. ”It’s very important, especially in the playoffs. Good or bad game, doesn’t matter. Turn the page, start over again and again. That’s how you get success.”
Vasilevskiy has found plenty of success this season, his first as a full-time NHL starter. The 23-year-old is a Vezina Trophy finalist after leading the league with 44 wins and eight shutouts.
But Vasilevskiy hasn’t made it easy on himself. He rarely does.
Cooper saw it during the 2016-17 season when Vasilevskiy struggled during a stretch of 10 consecutive starts when Ben Bishop was hurt and then again late this season when a swoon by him and the entire team almost cost Tampa Bay the East’s top seed. Vasilevskiy bounced back strong each time.
”His ability to be able to turn the page now and understand, ‘You know what there might be a tough night for you, but I’m going to go out the next night anyway and I’ve got to be there for my team,’ – I think that’s where his growth process has really come in,” Cooper said.
The same happened between Games 2 and 3 in this series. The shy Vasilevskiy who has been reluctant to do interviews told a pool reporter he didn’t make any adjustments from his worst games against the Capitals to his best.
Somehow, he has looked like an entirely different goalie. Chants of ”Vasy! Vasy!” filled Amalie Arena in Game 5 on Saturday night when he stopped 28 of 30 shots, and the highest praise was reserved for inside the Lightning’s locker room.
”He’s a world class goaltender, that’s what he does,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said. ”He battles hard every day in practice all season long, and he’s raised his game in the playoffs here.”
No doubt his teammates have improved their play in front of Vasilevskiy, with defenseman Anton Stralman saying: ”We always feel like we owe him.” But against a star-studded Capitals team led by countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vasilevskiy had to raise his game to give Tampa Bay any chance.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said confidence in Vasilevskiy never wavered, and he has showed them on the ice evidence of what they’ve seen all season.
”He just expects a lot,” Stamkos said. ”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.”
If the Capitals can crack Vasilevskiy like they did the first two times, there will be a Game 7 on Wednesday night at Tampa Bay. But they’d better figure that out and get an even better game from Braden Holtby because the Lightning are 11-0 in the playoffs when scoring three-plus goals.
That record is thanks to Vasilevskiy, who doesn’t like cameras but loves playoff hockey.
”It’s definitely a fun time,” he said. ”Lot of emotions. Different hockey. It’s pretty fun to play. Just excitement level is pretty high. A different season.”
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at email@example.com.
• It’s do-or-die time for the Washington Capitals tonight in Game 6. [NHL.com]
• It’s not going to be another Capitals choke job, is it? [National Post]
• How missing the playoffs last spring helped the Tampa Bay Lightning make another trip to the Eastern Conference Final. [Tampa Bay Times]
• George McPhee believed in his Vegas Golden Knights all along. [Review-Journal]
• The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets will play in next season’s Kraft Hockeyville preseason game in Clinton, New York. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]
• Will giving states the option to legalize gambling in the U.S. mean the end of “upper/lower-body injury” distinctions? [USA Today]
• Rick Tocchet is determined to get his Arizona Coyotes into the playoffs next season. [Arizona Sports]
• Daniel Alfredsson talks about his new life now as a hockey dad. [Sportsnet]
• A look at the future of the Carolina Hurricanes up front. [Section 328]
• Congrats to the Fargo Force for winning the 2018 USHL Clark Cup. [USHL]
• Interesting interview with former NHL ref Rob Martell about the officating in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [Weiss Hockey]
Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.
There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.
Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.
It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?
Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.
In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.
The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.
Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.
The next steps
It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.
Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?
Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.
And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …
The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.
Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?
The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)
Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.
July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.
Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.
Wheeler’s next deal
Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.
All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.
Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.
When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.
Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?
Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.
Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)
On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.
It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference Final in 2008, captain Sidney Crosby and his teammates decided to stick to superstition and not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It didn’t work as they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, as well as in 2016 and 2017, they put their mitts all over it and success followed in those Cup Finals.
So after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in their first year of existence, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a part of those Penguins teams, told de-facto captain Deryk Engelland to pick up the trophy.
This entire Golden Knights season has been unbelievable, so might as well tell superstition to be damned, right?
The ride continues for the “Vegas Golden Misfits,” as they so affectionately have dubbed themselves. It’s May 20, 2018 and an expansion franchise will be competing for the Stanley Cup within the week. No one saw this coming. Not after the expansion draft last June. Not after the team finally started playing together during training camp. Not even after their hot start in October.
When did the Golden Knights starts believing this year could be something special?
“I think once we hit Christmas we had the belief in the room,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt told NBCSN afterward. “We knew we had the guys, it was whether or not we could continue to do it. We believed that we could do that. We believed in that room, all the guys it took, and however many lineup changes, that we had the guys in there that could pull something like this off.”
Head coach Gerard Gallant started to believe during a back-to-back road trip to Nashville and Dallas in early December.
A 2-0 lead against the Predators on Dec. 8 evaporated with Nashville firing off three straight and taking the lead with 5:04 to play. Doubting Vegas would be a mistake all season, which explains Erik Haula tying the game with 40 seconds to play and Reilly Smith winning it in the sixth round of the shootout. The following night was another tough win, with the Stars keeping things tight until the very end and the Golden Knights coming out on top 5-3.
“We come out of those games, we outplayed both of those teams, played great hockey,” Gallant said. “That’s when I said to myself, this is a special team, the character on this team, they believe they can beat anybody. Going into those two buildings at that time was a big, big boost for us. It was a confidence builder for me, too.”
Those two victories were part of an 11-1-1 month to close out 2017 as the questioned about the Golden Knights’ legitimacy began to disappear.
“There’s no partying with me,” Gallant said after Game 5 when asked if he’s going to celebrate this accomplishment.
The quest isn’t over. The Vegas Golden Knights have evolved from bunch of expansion “misfits” to a nice story to a playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender over the course of six months. No one saw this coming, but the players inside the dressing room developed a belief over that period of time and that belief has manifested in reality.
Vegas will now have a few days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. After 82 regular season games and 15 playoff games, it’s time for some rest as the mission is far from accomplished.
“It’s been an awesome ride so far. We’ve won three series. We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, but this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said. “We want to win.”