Vasilevskiy turns East final around for Lightning

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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

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Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.