Is Andrei Vasilevskiy ready to be ‘Big Cat’ for Lightning playoff run?

TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn’t feeling like the “Big Cat” Tuesday morning.

After a loss to the Sabres on Monday night that left the Lightning’s dressing room stung and frustrated, the goaltender came in from practice and called himself “grumpy,” with an eye-roll and good-natured laugh.

Vasilevskiy, perhaps the greatest goaltender of his generation, always has been self-deprecating. A two-time Stanley Cup winner who has won both the Conn Smythe and Vezina trophies, he deflects questions about his success or popularity with NHL fans with humor and humble sarcasm.

But this has been a very different season for Vasilevskiy, starting with back surgery during training camp that caused him to miss the first 20 games. The 29-year-old Russian native had a microdiscectomy repair of a lumbar disc herniation on Sept. 28 and did not play his first game until Nov. 24.

There then followed a period of regaining his dominant form. In going 30-20-2 in 52 regular-season games, Vasilevskiy posted the highest goals-against average (2.90) and lowest-save percentage (.900) of his 10-year NHL career.

Still, around the league there was no real noticeable slip from the five-time All-Star.

In the last NHL Players’ Association poll, three-time Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid had the highest praise for Vasilevskiy a skater could give.

“Scoring against Andrei Vasilevskiy is extremely difficult,” McDavid said. “If he sees it, he’s going to stop it. And, you know, even if he doesn’t see it, he’s got a chance. But to me, I think he’s just so smart. It seems like he’s always reading the play. He can kind of anticipate what you’re going to do.”

Vasilevskiy has started to look more like himself of late. In the 10 games he played in March, he had an 8-1-1 record, .915% save percentage and 2.39 GAA, numbers more in line with his career totals.

He said Tuesday his body feels good and he is ready to start the postseason, which gets underway Sunday in Sunrise. Still, he acknowledged he and the Lightning took a different route to their first-round series against against the Panthers, battling late into the season to earn the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I guess we will see in the playoffs how I will perform,” he said. “Definitely, it was a different season a little bit. It was not like our previous season, when we knew that we made the playoffs 20 games before. But, I mean, it was fun. The wild-card race was great. Thank God we made the playoffs, and now we’ll just have to play.”

Historically, the postseason is when Vasilevskiy has played his best.

He has a 65-42 record, and his .921 save percentage and 2.37 GAA in 110 career playoff games are better than his career regular-season numbers (.917, 2.56). He has seven postseason shutouts, including five during the Lightning’s march to the 2021 Stanley Cup championship, after which he was named the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP.

The brighter lights and bigger stakes of the postseason clearly bring out the best in Vasilevskiy, who seems to reach a higher level of competitiveness. Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman recognized that in the NHLPA poll.

“I just love how he competes,” Swayman said. “The way he could see through screens, and he’s always square. He covers so much net because of the way he plays, and his upper body is always up and, you know, he just competes. ... He just doesn’t care how he gets it done, just gets it done in the right way.”

Over the past month and a half, Lightning coach Jon Cooper has started to see more of that postseason Vasilevskiy than the one trying to play his way back from injury.

“Wouldn’t rather have nobody else in the net but him,” Cooper said. “I am thankful that he’s come back from the surgery and performing the way he has. Like, we’re a good hockey team, and Vasilevsky, he’s a huge part of that. And when he’s on his game, which he has been this last six weeks or whatever it is, that’s a good sign for us.”

In typical Vasilevskiy fashion, he deflects questions about his past postseason success with a joke.

“I like energy,” he said. “The fans are going crazy, usually, and everybody is watching the playoffs.”

But, he added with a sly smile, there is also a downside to the additional attention.

“Lots of messages, unnecessary messages on my phone,” Vasilevskiy said. “From random people I don’t know.”

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