When an average team has a great goalie it immediately becomes capable of greatness. Goaltending is that important and that much of a season-changer. Especially in the playoffs.
When you put a great goalie behind an already great team, that team can become nearly unbeatable.
That is what we are seeing right now with the Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning enter Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC / Peacock; livestream) with a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens and are just one win away from becoming just the fourth repeat champion over the past 30 years, joining a list that includes only a pair of Pittsburgh Penguins teams and the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. You can look at the superstar forwards, or Victor Hedman on defense, or the insane level of depth they have acquired as key reasons why and you would be right every step of the way.
But right now, for this team, it is Vasilevskiy that is driving the championship run more than any other individual player.
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He has already been the NHL’s best goalie for several years and a game-changing force in the Tampa Bay crease. He is a regular Vezina Trophy finalist. But he might be playing the best hockey of his career right now in this postseason.
Even though the Lightning are on the verge of repeating as Cup champions, and have players posting huge offensive numbers, and have yet to lose consecutive games this postseason, they have still not been quite as dominant as they were during their Cup run a year ago. They have spent more time defending, they have allowed more shots, more chances, and been challenged a little bit more at various times, especially against Florida in the First Round and the New York Islanders in the semifinals. They have had to lean on Vasilevskiiy to bail them out a little more often than we have seen in the past. He has been more than up to the challenge.
Let’s look at some numbers just to get an idea of the impact he is making.
The table below looks at the past two years of defensive performance for the Lightning in terms of shot attempts against (CA/60), shots on goal against (SA/60), scoring chances (SC/60), high-danger chances (HDSCA/60), and expected goals against (xGA/60). Along with that, we also included Vasilevskiy’s save percentages against those scoring chances and high-danger chances.
[NHL Power Rankings: Conn Smythe Watch Entering Game 4]
There is not only a noticeable jump in the shots and chances against, but look at how much higher Vasilevskiy’s save percentages are against those chances. He has not only been better, he leads all goalies in both categories.
(Data via Natural Stat Trick)
It is a completely dominant goaltending performance, and it should make him the Conn Smythe Trophy front-runner at this point. Because without him playing at this level they may not be in this position to win another Stanley Cup.
It is also not just about the overall performance. It is also about how he has played in the biggest situations, recording a shutout in literally every series clinching win this postseason. Add in his 2-0 shutout win in the Cup Final clincher last season and he has recorded a shutout in an NHL record four consecutive series clinching wins. That is a legendary type of performance on the biggest stage the sport has.
Given how talented the roster is and the offensive numbers their superstar forwards record it is easy to overlook the importance of the goalie on a team like this. But over the past two years Tampa Bay has a losing record (13-14-5) when Vasilevskiy does not play, while he has played literally every minute of playoff hockey during that stretch. Never given a night off. Never been pulled due to performance or the team needing a spark. He has simply played every game at an absurdly high level, and doing so this year behind a team that has not been quite as dominant as we have seen.
It is certainly a Conn Smythe level performance if the Lightning win this series.
2021 NHL playoff schedule: Stanley Cup Final – (TB leads 3-0)
Game 1: Lightning 5, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Lightning 3, Canadiens 1
Game 3: Lightning 6, Canadiens 3
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock) – livestream
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.