NHL on NBCSN: Looking at Andrei Vasilevskiy’s consistent dominance for Lightning

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Something very different happened for the Lightning on Monday night.

They actually played a game without Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. If you have been paying attention to the Lightning over the past calendar year you might know what a rarity that has become

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the start in Tampa’s 4-1 win over the Predators, stopping 23 out of the 24 shots he faced. It was a nice — and well earned — break for Vasilevskiy who is expected to be back in the net on Tuesday night for the rematch (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) between the two teams.

The reason this is such a big deal is because Monday’s game was the first time since March 8, 2020 that a goalie other than Vasilevskiy played a minute of hockey for the Lightning. Not just made a start, but played even a minute of game action. It is only the second game since Feb. 27 that Vasilevskiy did not play the entire game.

[Watch Live: Lightning vs. Predators 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN]

The numbers on this are somewhat staggering. Including the tail end of the 2019-20 regular season, the entire playoff bubble, and the first nine games of this season Vasilevskiy played every minute of hockey for Tampa over a 35-game stretch. Going back to the Feb. 27 game that is 39 out of 40 games where Vasilevskiy not only got the start, but played so consistently well that he never even had to be pulled a single time.

His overall numbers during that 35 consecutive game stretch include a 25-9-1 record, more than 2,309 minutes, and a .929 save percentage during a championship playoff run and a 7-1-1 start to the following season. Remarkable stuff.

Sometimes it seems as if we do not fully appreciate just how good Vasilevskiy is, and how much of an asset he is to a team that is already elite before you even get to his roster spot. The superstar forwards (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point) and Norris Trophy defenseman (Victor Hedman) usually grab most of the headlines. But Vasilevskiy is every bit as elite at his position. Since becoming the Lightning’s regular starting goalie during the 2016-17 season he has a top-five all situations save percentage, a top-five even-strength save percentage, has led the league in wins in three consecutive seasons, has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in each of the past three years (winning it once), and backstopped his team to a Stanley Cup.

Let’s be honest here, that is the beginnings of a potential Hall of Fame career. It is almost unfair to put a goalie this good on a team that is already this good. It takes them from being great, to elite.

[Related: Bruins take top spot in NHL Power Rankings, Lightning in second spot]

Just consider how good the Lightning are independent of Vasilevskiy. Since the start of the 2016-17 season their backup goalies have only managed a .905 save percentage in 101 games. Not great, but adequate. About what you would expect from average backups. Despite that, they still have a 61-32-8 record in games where their backups have been the goalie of record. That is still a 105 point pace over 82 games.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season only three teams have finished a season with a save percentage of .905 or lower and had more than 100 points. It takes a hell of a team to play at that level with that level of goaltending. The point of this example is just to establish how good the Lightning are even when they mediocre goaltending. They would still win, or at least seriously compete for, most divisions titles in most years.

But when you add the league’s best current goalie to the mix they become an entirely different kind of monster. Almost unbeatable. As much as an NHL team can be unbeatable.

In games where Vasilevskiy has been the goalie of record since the start of the 2016-17 season, where he has a .920 all situations save percentage, the Lightning have played at a 116-point pace over 82 games. That is a Presidents’ Trophy type of pace.

[MORE: Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

A lot of teams need great goaltending to play at a 100-plus point pace because they just do not have the superstar talent or overall depth to do so without it. The Lightning do not need that level of goaltending. But the fact that they get it from Vasilevskiy is a big part of what has made them the NHL’s best, and most successful team in recent years.

They are going to lead the league in goals. They have what is arguably the best all-around defenseman of this era in Hedman. And they have a goalie in Vasilevskiy that is as elite as it gets at the position. Not only in his ability to play at such a consistently high level, but the fact he is capable of playing quite literally every minute of hockey over a 35-game stretch (and all but 60 minutes over a 40-game stretch). You just can not duplicate that anywhere else, and the fact the Lightning have it on top of everything else makes them the top Stanley Cup favorite at the start of every season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.