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What Andrei Vasilevskiy is doing as Lightning ride hot Jonas Johansson

BRANDON — The Lightning took their biggest blow of 2023-24 before the season had even started. They received word that five-time All-Star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, the backbone of their two most recent Stanley Cup titles and three straight Cup final appearances, would miss eight to 10 weeks following back surgery.

Vasilevskiy had a microdiscectomy Sept. 28 to address a lumbar disk herniation. A month later, he is still feeling his way back.

“He’s been great,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You have to pull him down because he wants to do more and more and more. He’s on schedule and looks great. His spirits are great.

“I can’t put a timetable on (his return). … We’ve got a few more weeks. It was, like, right around that Thanksgiving time.”

Vasilevskiy’s rehabilitation takes place mostly away from the team and behind closed doors. Cooper said the goaltender has progressed to putting on skates and getting on the ice for what the coach called a light “Christmas skate.”

As Vasilevskiy gets closer to returning, Cooper said, more information will be funneled through him.

The Thanksgiving target is encouraging.

The Lightning have 12 games scheduled between now and Thanksgiving Day. In Jonas Johansson they have found a solid replacement to help them weather Vasilevskiy’s absence.

Tampa Bay signed Johansson, who had limited NHL experience, in free agency during the summer because it believed Vasilevskiy no longer needed a veteran behind him. The signing also was a way to save money under the salary cap.

Johansson, who had just 35 games of NHL experience before signing, was coming off his best year in the NHL: three games with the Avalanche.

No one was sure how Johansson, who turned 28 last month, would react when he was thrown into the fire at the start of the season, but he has responded well.

In seven games, Johansson is 4-1-2 with a 2.56 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. This week he posted back-to-back shutouts with 32 saves against the Hurricanes and 23 against the Sharks.

The Lightning have been more than pleased with their return on the gamble they took on Johansson.

“We signed him for a reason. And that was to do what he’s doing,” Cooper said. “We just expected we would start him 20 times a year, not 20 times in the first two months. And so, that’s the difference. But he’s proven himself to be much more than capable, and everything of what our scouts saw is coming to fruition, and it’s good for him to see that he can handle the work as well.”

Still, to get back a healthy Vasilevskiy could be a season-changer for the Lightning, who seem to be working out their defensive system for much of the first month of the season.

Since 2015-16, Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in wins (256) and is third in shutouts (31). He helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons, playing every minute during the 2020 and 2021 playoffs.

The 29-year-old won the Vezina Trophy in 2018-19 and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2021.

Notes

Forward Tyler Motte was on the ice for part of Friday’s practice, wearing a red no-contact jersey. It was the first time he had practiced with the team since suffering an upper-body injury in the season opener. “It means he’s getting in shape, hockey shape, but doesn’t change any timeline on him,” Cooper said. “Best-case scenario, he plays on the road trip,” a four-game set that begins Thursday. … Forward Brandon Hagel was the only player missing from practice. Cooper said he had a rest day. Hagel was to be on the ice when the Lightning return to practice Sunday.

Contact Kristie Ackert at kackert@tampabay.com.

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