Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy rounding into postseason form

TAMPA — When Andrei Vasilevskiy returned from surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back, the Lightning goaltender didn’t know what to expect from this season.

After missing six weeks recovering from the procedure, Vasilevskiy hoped that he’d be feeling comfortable and playing his best hockey as the Lightning approached the postseason.

And heading into the regular season’s final 10 games, Vasilevskiy is showing signs of his typical playoff form. That might be the most encouraging sign if the Lightning have another deep run in them.

“Sometimes we take a little bit for granted the type of athlete that he is,” Lightning goaltenders coach Frantz Jean said. “And to come back from an injury like he had and the operation, it’s not easy. So he’s shown tremendous resiliency to come back quickly and to show up every day and try to do his best.”

Vasilevskiy’s 23-save performance in the 3-1 home win over Boston on Wednesday gave him a 6-0-1 record in his last seven starts. He has held opponents to one or fewer goals in three of those games, and he hasn’t allowed more than three regulation goals over that stretch.

“It’s been a pretty interesting season for me,” Vasilevskiy said after Wednesday’s win. “I’ll just keep playing and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

Vasilevskiy’s season stats — a 2.90 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage — loom around the league average. And they pale in comparison to the ones he typically puts up.

But looking again at the past seven games, Vasilevskiy has allowed just 2.14 goals a game and has a .925 save percentage. And in 5-on-5 play, he has allowed just 1.7 goals a game.

That improvement comes as the Lightning are playing their best defense as a team in front of Vasilevskiy. They have allowed fewer scoring chances in front of the net, avoided turnovers that previously led to odd-man rushes and are limiting time in their own zone.

It’s clear that Vasilevskiy is getting more comfortable in the net. He’s seeing the puck better, he’s reacting more quickly in moving from post to post, and he appears to have a better feel for what he has to do to keep the puck out of the net, all things that come with game repetitions.

Maybe most importantly, Vasilevskiy is getting these wins over teams the Lightning could see in the playoffs: the Rangers, Panthers and Bruins.

In Wednesday’s game against Boston, he made a lunging save, reaching his glove behind him to close off the net to James van Riemsdyk on an open rebound chance, preserving a one-goal lead. With the Lightning protecting a 2-1 lead, Vasilevskiy stepped up in the crease to make a poke check on a Bruins breakaway, and he was patient facing Jake DeBrusk by keeping his stick to the ice to stop his shot.

Vasilevskiy might have had a better performance March 16 at Sunrise, where he made 47 saves in a 5-3 win over the Panthers. The Lightning were on the penalty kill for 11:07 in that game, and Vasilevskiy stopped 18 of the 19 short-handed shots he saw. The Panthers had 17 scoring chances on the power play.

This is the time of season when the Lightning hoped Vasilevskiy would find his groove. Since he didn’t make his debut until the day after Thanksgiving, and hadn’t seen any pucks outside of practices, it was going to take time for him to adapt to the speed of the NHL game again.

Vasilevskiy had to gain his timing back tracking the puck and get reacclimated to the physical toll of the schedule. He essentially has played every game except one half of back-to-backs. And with just one remaining back-to-back set left, Vasilevskiy could end the regular season with 54 starts, which is amazing given how much time he missed early. Last season, he made 60 starts in a full season.

“I think that’s why we see more consistency from him,” Jean said. “So I think that that’s been the biggest challenge is having missed the training camp and the first two months and now everybody’s basically three, four months ahead of you and you’re doubling it down to try to catch up, so I think he’s done a good job at it.”

Asked after Wednesday’s game how he feels physically, Vasilevskiy said, “not bad.”

“I guess consistent, trying to take care of myself and I’ll work on myself,” he said. “It’s a different season for me, like surgery-wise and all that stuff. So I guess not bad.”

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