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Andrei Vasilevskiy has been brilliant. Lightning have squat to show for it

SUNRISE — Certainly, the Panthers deserved to celebrate. Their pressure was relentless.

The Lightning deserved their fate, too. They have allowed Florida to control the puck and the pace.

As for Andrei Vasilevskiy? He deserved so much more.

If the Lightning cannot win a playoff game with their goaltender sliding, diving and denying pucks from every direction, then this season could be heading to a quicker end than last year.

Florida beat Tampa Bay 3-2 in overtime Tuesday night to claim the first two games of the first-round series. And when Carter Verhaeghe’s backhanded flip ended up in the net less than three minutes into the extra period, Vasilevskiy was sprawled on the ice with Florida forward Matthew Tkachuk on top of him, and three Lightning players arriving too late to do a stinking thing to help their goaltender.

“I thought Vasy made some great saves,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Both goalies played outstanding tonight. One had a little more action than the other but both made some really quality saves.”

Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will dominate highlight clips for the next 24 hours — and you will probably see it for years to come — with a spectacular, no-stick, leaping, backhanded save to rob Lightning defenseman Matt Dumba, who had an open shot at the end of a rush when the game was 2-2 in the second period.

But Vasilevskiy’s degree of difficulty across 63 minutes was far higher.

He kept the score close in Game 1, and he practically lugged the Lightning into overtime in Game 2.

Vasilevskiy didn’t just face 37 shots, he faced a barrage of wide-open chances, rushes, tips and screens.

“Watch two guys like that go toe-to-toe — I know I coach one of the teams — but you kind of marvel at some of the saves that were made,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “On that one save, (Bobrovsky) didn’t quit on it. That’s probably more on us than him, but you’ve got to tip your hat to him.

“I thought the biggest saves were the two Vasy made after that save. Which, at the time, could have sunk us. He kept us in it. It was a pretty sparkling performance by both guys.”

There were actually three rapid-fire saves by Vasilevskiy during the sequence Cooper was talking about. He began by stopping a long-range shot with his blocker, then kept his left leg down to block the follow-up and immediately swallowed a third attempt with his glove.

This all happened in a span of two seconds.

A minute after that, Vasilevskiy disrupted Verhaeghe as he crossed through the crease with the puck, and then caught a wide-open snap shot by Tkachuk from 24 feet away.

With the Lightning on a four-minute power play early in the third period, Vasilevskiy rescued Nikita Kucherov when a shot attempt went awry and Aaron Ekblad broke loose with a one-on-one. Vasilevskiy held his ground in the crease and made a glove save from 14 feet.

If you had any doubt that Vasilevskiy’s less-than-stellar numbers this season suggested there was a problem with his game, this is the night that should put that silly notion to rest. Yes, his numbers (a 2.90 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage) were the worst of his career, but that had more to do with the skaters in front of him and a slow start after offseason back surgery.

But, as the first two games suggested, there is only so much Vasilevskiy can do if his teammates continue to allow Florida to dictate the flow.

The Lightning swore they would not have the same miserable start they had in Game 1.

And they didn’t.

This one was worse.

It was as if they were bowing to Florida’s reputation on defense. They were passing, circling, waiting for the perfect opportunity.

Twenty minutes into the game, they had barely challenged Bobrovsky. They attempted only nine shots, and only three were on net. Florida, on the other hand, had fired 23 shots and were leading 2-0.

When the second period opened, the Lightning finally showed a sense of desperation and the momentum briefly shifted. It was 48 seconds into the period when Anthony Duclair whipped the puck toward the net from 25 feet away, and Brayden Point tipped it past Bobrovsky. Five minutes later, Stamkos rocketed a one-timer into the top corner on a power play.

For the period, the Lightning nearly tripled their shot attempts, and put 15 on net.

But once they tied the score, the Lightning seemed to lose their aggressiveness. And the biggest problem has been on the top line, which has been outplayed for long stretches of the series. Kucherov now has as many giveaways (three) as shots on goal (three) two games into the postseason.

Six periods into the playoffs, the Lightning have gotten an MVP-caliber effort from their goaltender.

And they have not led for even one second.

That does not bode well for what’s to come.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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