DENVER — Even the best in the world can have his bad moments.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final marked the first time Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had given up three goals in the first period of a playoff game. Two of those Colorado Avalanche tallies uncharacteristically trickled through him for what could be termed “soft” goals, at least by his standards.
But being the best in the world comes with an unparalleled confidence in one’s abilities. He stopped every shot he faced until the Avalanche won in overtime, challenging attacking players with a ferocity undeterred by his first-period struggles. “He’s an all-world goaltender. He stood tall and gave us a chance to win it,” captain Steven Stamkos said.
The Lightning don’t worry about Andrei Vasilevskiy. Frankly, they’re in awe of him.
“It’s pretty cool to play with a player that’s going to go down as one of the best that’s ever played the game,” Tampa Bay Lightning winger Alex Killorn said of his goaltender.
At this point in his career, trying to contextualize the inherent greatness of Andrei Vasilevskiy is like awarding an Oscar for best picture halfway through a movie’s premiere. He turns 28 next month. He’s finishing his eighth NHL season, all with the Lightning. He led the NHL in regular-season wins in five of those seasons, capturing the Vezina Trophy in 2018-19 as the league’s top goaltender.
But it’s the postseason accomplishments that have players like Killorn anointing Vasilevskiy the GOAT before he turns 30.
Entering Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche, he had played in 98 postseason games. He won 61 of them. He has a career postseason save percentage of .925, tied with Dominik Hasek, which is .001 away from the best of all time. His stats in games in which the Lightning eliminated opponents are legendary: He has six career series-clinching shutouts, the most in NHL history.
If coffee is for closers, Vasilevskiy would be Starbucks.
Oh, and he was the backbone for consecutive Stanley Cup championships and potentially a third in a row, collecting a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP in 2021.
There has been some “Goalie Mount Rushmore” talk about Vasilevskiy this postseason. Perhaps you’ve heard it or seen it. So I asked someone whose visage is already chiseled on that cliffside about whether Vasilevskiy belongs there at this juncture.
“I think so,” Hockey Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur said.
“The way he’s been playing for the last three years has been unbelievable. Some of his stats, those Game 7s and clinching games. It takes a special goalie to be that dominant for so many years,” he said. “How many times would it have been easy for him to say, you know what, I had a good run. I won these Stanley Cups. But he just perseveres, you know?”
In case you couldn’t tell, Marty is a bit enamored with Vasilevskiy. So is his son, as Vasilevskiy is his favorite goaltender — Brodeur told me that he has acquired a few autographed items through Tampa Bay goaltending coach Frantz Jean for the young fan in his life. For years, Brodeur put Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens on a pedestal as the NHL’s greatest modern day goaltender. Vasilevskiy changed that.
“Since he’s been on this run, it switched it for me,” Brodeur admitted.
Brodeur knows a thing or two about postseason success. Or three, actually, as in the number of Stanley Cups he won with the New Jersey Devils en route to 113 career postseason wins, second all time to Patrick Roy (151).
Three Cups. But not three in a row as Vasilevskiy is attempting to achieve.
“I never had the chance. I went to three Stanley Cup Finals in four years. I went back to back [in 2000 and 2001] and lost to Colorado in seven games,” Brodeur said. “What he’s on the verge of doing, it’s crazy.”
Let me get out my chisel for the Mount Rushmore of playoff goalies. Roy is on there — I mean, with 151 playoff wins, four Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe paired with three of them, one could argue Roy deserves his own mountain.
I’d chisel Brodeur next to him. That third spot could go to a number of players: New York Islanders dynasty goalie Billy Smith, six-Cup winners Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden, Edmonton Oilers legend Grant Fuhr among them. Pick any of them and you’re golden.
And then I’d chisel Vasilevskiy next to them.
It’s not just the potential three Stanley Cup wins in a row. It’s the four trips to the conference finals in five years. It’s putting up elite numbers in an era that’s not the friendliest for goalies, against the greatest offensive talent we’ve ever seen. It’s the way he has done it: 13 series-clinching wins in his playoff career, trailing only Marc-Andre Fleury (16) among active goalies, with a .991 save percentage in his past eight series-clinching wins, dating back to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
Again, just my opinion. Others don’t necessarily share it.
“It’s a little early to be talking about the Mount Rushmore of goalies because I’ve got a lot of respect for guys going back to the Johnny Bower days,” said Brian Engblom, a former NHL defenseman who has been a broadcaster for the Lightning during Vasilevskiy’s career. “It’s a hard question. You’re talking about the whole history of the NHL. You have to take longevity into it, right? He can’t have done any better than he has up until this point, and I fully expect him to keep doing the same thing.”
What does Vasilevskiy do that makes him better than everyone else?
“He is a machine,” Engblom said. “He’s got the best legs of any goalie I’ve ever seen in the National Hockey League. He’s so fast. They call him the Big Cat for a reason. I’ve seen so many plays where guys come in and give a million-dollar move and then he shoots out a leg. You can see the expression on the forward’s face: ‘C’mon, you didn’t stop that one, that’s impossible.’ He does the impossible.”
What does that mean?
“He can go both directions at the same time.”
Like Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four?
“Watch him in the warm-ups. He’ll sit in the splits for like 30 seconds, like a gymnast. He’s a phenomenal athlete, incredibly powerful and all the attributes. But more than anything, he’s driven to be a winner. He’s driven to be the best.”
I asked Vasilevskiy’s backup, Brian Elliott, about that drive to succeed.
“It’s pretty special. It’s something that when I signed here I was really happy to be partnered up with him. One of the best guys to do it,” Elliott said. “I was lucky enough to have one of those stints when Marty Brodeur was with us in St. Louis. It’s something you never forget, being at a practice and looking at a legend at the other end. [Vasy] is making himself into one of those guys that’ll go down in history. That’s pretty special to me.”
Does he belong on the Mount Rushmore of playoff goalies?
“I don’t put him there. He puts himself there,” Elliott deadpanned. “I don’t get into that whole debate. He’s proven, and still proving, what he can do.”
The mind boggles at what Vasilevskiy could end up proving when all is said and done. His first full season as a starter was 2017-18. He has gotten 188 wins in the five-year span since then out of 372 possible games due to shortened seasons (winning 50.5% of his team’s games). According to ESPN Stats & Information, five more seasons at that win rate would mean 207 victories; 10 more seasons would be 414 more victories. The latter would put him at 643 career wins, or 48 behind Brodeur’s all-time record of 691.
Hypothetically, even if we dock Vasilevskiy 10 wins in Years 6-10 due to his age and/or playing with lesser teams, he’d still be approaching 600 wins and easily be in second place in NHL history.
Does Brodeur hear the footsteps?
“Not yet,” he said. “He’s got a little ways to go, but that’s fine. Like I told you before, if someone gets to the record, they’re going to deserve it.”
As I admire my masonry work in putting Andrei Vasilevskiy on my Mount Rushmore of playoff goalies, I agree with Brodeur. Vasilevskiy is not quite there on the Mount Rushmore of regular-season goalies.
Not yet, at least.
“You’re getting maybe half his face on Mount Rushmore,” Engblom said, metaphorical chisel in hand. “I’ll reserve the other half for when he plays for another eight or nine years.”
Until then, we’ll continue to witness the burgeoning legend of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“That’s how you gauge players: how they play in big-time games,” Killorn said. “He’s been nothing but tremendous in these games.”
Jersey Foul of the week
From humid Tampa Bay:
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) June 12, 2022
There was some debate among Lightning fans as to why this celebration of Phil Esposito, the Hockey Hall of Famer who was a driving force in expansion to Tampa, should be considered a Foul.
At a minimum, it’s because this is a hockey jersey, not a billboard, and should be treated as such. But also, from a design standpoint, that giant blue ocean of color under the nameplate is just aesthetically distracting. At least put a No. 92 there in honor of when the team was founded. Although it would still be a Foul.
Video of the week
The Avalanche are in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s about time this gets unearthed.
In 2012, Imagine Dragons put out a video for their song “Radioactive” that featured Alexandra Daddario and a subplot about Muppet pit fighting. This somehow inspired the Colorado Avalanche to create their own version of a “Radioactive” video in 2014 that featured current players Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon as well as former Avs Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene.
There’s a lot of sweat. And lip-syncing. And sweaty lip-syncing. There’s also a clip of then-head coach Patrick Roy trying to fight Bruce Boudreau between the benches, which was truly radioactive.
“Imagine Avs,” as it was known, was a collaboration between the team and Imagine Dragons. The Avalanche actually deleted it from their official YouTube channel some time ago. You can watch it above or on Streamable.
We demand a remake if they win the Stanley Cup. Or, if they lose, force the players to sweaty-lip-sync to “Thunder.”
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Vegas Golden Knights
Bruce Cassidy is a terrific coach and a straightforward one. He’s as candid as they come. His hiring will benefit the Golden Knights, who could use someone to slice through the nonsense and take a fresh look under the hood to see what’s wrong with their engine. For Cassidy, he takes over a contender on the way up instead of a fading one in Boston. Good news all around with this hire.
I like John Tortorella with the Philadelphia Flyers, a hiring that ESPN’s Kevin Weekes said is in the works. You couldn’t cook up a better aesthetic and philosophical fit than Seething Man and the Broad Street Bullies. That said, it’s a tough look for the Flyers to have reports that Barry Trotz was (a) their first choice and (b) turned down $7 million annually (!) to coach the team.
Winner: Arizona Coyotes
Find me anyone who loves anything more than Gary Bettman loves the Arizona market for the NHL. At his state of the league news conference, the commissioner once again went to bat for the Coyotes’ three-year (plus an option for a fourth!) plan to play in an arena at Arizona State University that seats no more than 5,000 fans.
“It’s not unprecedented. You do what you have to do if you believe in the market long term. We remain excited and optimistic about the [Tempe] project,” he said, citing the possible arena project that would be constructed while the Coyotes play at ASU. Bettman even cited several examples of teams playing in smaller venues temporarily, like the San Jose Sharks at the Cow Palace and Tampa Bay Lightning at Expo Hall. Never mind those were expansion teams, and that those placeholder venues still hold twice the capacity of ASU.
Loser: San Jose Sharks
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly revealed that the Evander Kane contract termination grievance with the San Jose Sharks “has been delayed due to scheduling conflicts with the case’s arbitrator, and may not be reached before free agency opens July 13.”
While this obviously affects Kane, writer Sheng Peng spells out why it impacts the Sharks even more, from cap space to buyout decisions.
Winner: Emphatic decisions
Kudos to the NHL for quickly and sternly addressing the elephant in the room: What happens when the Lightning or Avalanche win the Cup and one of their Russian players wants to take the chalice to their homeland, which is currently being ostracized by the NHL for its invasion of Ukraine?
“We made both clubs aware already with respect to this summer, the Cup is not going to Russia or Belarus,” Daly said. “We may owe a Cup trip in the future, just like we did with the pandemic. But it’s not happening this summer.”
Loser: Gerard Gallant
I received a few text messages from hockey public relations professionals who were stunned by the Rangers coach’s fumbling of Kaapo Kakko’s healthy scratch in Game 6 against the Lightning. Gallant refused to address it during the game or after the game.
It was only later that he revealed it was only a decision meant to give his team the best possible lineup. But by refusing to engage on the matter, Gallant opened up the spigot for a flood of speculation about Kakko and the “real” reason he was out of the lineup, from an incident with the coach to other more extreme theories. That’s a shame and something completely unwarranted. It’s such an unforced error.
LeBron James meets the Stanley Cup.
E. with a lengthy essay that includes this interesting thought: “Connor McDavid has the skills he has, in part, because he is the first real star of the post-headshot era.”
On an all-Black hockey team in Minnesota. “To have a team like this come through here is no better way to say, ‘We’ve arrived. We’re here. Hockey is literally for everyone.’ This proves it.”
The only way the World Cup of Hockey can be a success is if it’s held during the season. Happy to hear this is the plan.
What the scouts are saying about top NHL prospects. “I would take Slafkovsky. He’s a difference maker, you saw it at the Hlinka, the Olympics, the Worlds. I’m not sure Wright is a difference maker type of player. There were a lot of games I wondered where the effort and drive to take over the game was from him.”
Congrats to the Rangers for their forward-thinking decision to have Jessica Campbell serve as a coach during the 2022 Rangers Development Camp set for later this summer.
“Despite overtures and flirtations, especially with Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta once expressing adding a major league hockey franchise to the Toyota Center, anything resembling an outright NHL-to-Houston move is purely rumor and speculation in 2022.” Oh, OK, glad we cleared that up.
What a potential Alex DeBrincat trade could look like for the Chicago Blackhawks. “If the Blackhawks do decide to go all in with a rebuild and deal DeBrincat there should be no shortage of interested teams. New Jersey, Buffalo, and Detroit need something to jumpstart their rebuild. Calgary might have to replace Johnny Gaudreau. Los Angeles and the New York Islanders need another star. What that trade looks like though remains to be seen. But there is at least a potential framework out there based on similar deals in the salary cap era.”
Jake Thibeault walking across the stage at his graduation is the kind of thing that makes your week.
From your friends at ESPN
Kristen Shilton with nine decisions that made the Avalanche a juggernaut.