Just when you think the Tampa Bay Lightning are down and out, they find a way to keep punching back.
They were able to stay alive in the Stanley Cup Final on Friday night with a tight 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche, forcing a Game 6 back in Tampa Bay on Sunday night. The biggest factor in that win: They had the far superior goalie as Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside 35 out of 37 to increase his playoff save percentage to .922 this postseason, while also improving his record to 3-0 when the Lightning are facing elimination.
The Lightning have been the league’s best and most successful team over the eight seasons and there are a lot of factors in their climb to the top and ability to stay there for so long. They have a great coach in Jon Cooper, Hall of Fame talents in Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman at key positions, and a great front office that is always able to complement that core with a steady pipeline of young talent, while also making shrewd trades and free agent signings to find value.
But one of the biggest reasons for their success, even aside from all of those stars, and coaches, and front office vision, is the fact they have the best goalie in hockey who always seems to be at his best when the chips are down on the table. We already talked earlier this postseason he good he is when the Lightning have a chance to knock an opponent out of the playoffs. But he is just as good when his team is the one facing elimination.
[Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]
It has not happened all that often in his career given how good the Lightning have consistently been during his time as the team’s starter, but including this postseason he is 6-3 when facing elimination with a .936 save percentage.
In any elimination game (a total of 25 in his career), whether it is the Lightning looking to knock out an opponent or the Lightning looking to keep their season alive, his save percentage jumps all the way up to .940 in those games.
In all other non-elimination playoff games his save percentage is .922. Still excellent. Still elite. But he always seems to find another level in games where a team’s season is on the line. And that is why the Lightning are so difficult to eliminate and why they still have such a fighting chance in this series even though they were facing a 3-1 series deficit and still need to win consecutive games to win a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
But it’s not even just the elimination games. It’s simply when the Lightning are down big in a series.
After dropping the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers, Vasilevskiy bounced back with a .954 save percentage in the next four games (all Tampa Bay wins) and allowed just five total goals.
After losing the first two games against Colorado, he has .939 save percentage in the past three games against the Avalanche while stopping at least 34 shots in each game. The Lightning are 2-1 in those games with the only loss being the Game 4 overtime game.
He is a series changer.
Vasilevskiy is so good that he would make almost any team he plays on a serious contender (with only a few exceptions, probably). His massive frame, cat-like quickness, unflappable poise and unmatched production for this era make him one of the most valuable players in the entire league. Put him on a lottery team, and it might compete for a playoff spot. Put him on a playoff team, and it becomes a Stanley Cup contender. When the team is already a Stanley Cup contender you get a potential dynasty.
That has to be mildly concerning if you are an Avalanche fan.
[Related: Lightning stay alive by winning tight Game 5 against Colorado Avalanche]
Through the first five games of the series Colorado has been the better team by a pretty significant margin. Colorado has had the upper hand in scoring chances, expected goals, and shot attempts during 5-on-5 play in all five games of the series, while the overall numbers for the series are overwhelmingly in the Avalanche’s failure. They are all pretty much a 60-40 split in favor of the Avalanche. It should not be a close series on the scoreboard or in the results.
But it is, almost entirely because of the decisive edge the Lightning have in goal with Vasilevskiy.
That is the biggest reason this thing is still up for grabs going into Game 6 on Sunday night.
Vasilevskiy is at his best when the Lightning need him to be their best player, which is the case right now. If history is any indicator he might have a couple more massive performances in him this season. If he does, it will cement the Lightning as one of the all-time great dynasties and Vasilevskiy as one of the all-time great goalies.
2022 NHL playoff schedule: Stanley Cup Final
COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 3-2)
Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – Avalanche 7, Lightning 0
Game 3 – Lightning 6, Avalanche 2
Game 4 – Avalanche 3, Lightning 2 (OT)
Game 5 – Lightning 3, Avalanche 2
Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
* if necessary
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.