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Andrei Vasilevskiy appears ready for the next step

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy posted a .930 save percentage over the final month and a half of the season

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

On February 4, the Tampa Bay Lightning occupied last place in the Eastern Conference standings.

A popular pick in the preseason to win the Stanley Cup, the Lightning came out of the All-Star break as a playoff afterthought with over two months to go.

Yet, entering the final week of the regular season, the Bolts had climbed all the way back into the playoff hunt and were putting serious pressure on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators, all three teams ultimately winning just enough down the stretch to hold off the pesky Lightning.

How could the turnaround in Tampa Bay be so drastic in such a short amount of time?

There were a myriad of reasons.

Jake Dotchin's emergence on the blue line split up the partnership of Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman and fellow Swede Anton Stralman, allowing for a more even distribution of talent among the defensive pairings.

Nikita Kucherov turned in maybe the best second half to the season of any NHL player. From February 4, Kucherov scored a league-best 21 goals and tied with Edmonton's Connor McDavid for most points (40) in the league.

American Hockey League callups like Yanni Gourde, Adam Erne, Gabriel Dumont and the aforementioned Dotchin brought energy, youthful enthusiasm and fearlessness to the parent squad and provided a sooner-than-expected impact at the NHL level.

Video: TBL@MTL: Vasilevskiy uses acrobatics to deny DanaultBut perhaps the most significant development over the final couple months of the season was the continued maturation of 22-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The third-year pro started the season as option 1-A in head coach Jon Cooper's two-headed goalie monster with Ben Bishop, but by the end of 2016-17, Vasilevskiy had emerged as a bonafide No. 1 following the trade of Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings three days before the trade deadline and Vasilevskiy's own growth.

Since that day when the Lightning dealt their winningest goalie in franchise history -- along with their 5th round pick in 2017 -- to the Kings for veteran netminder Peter Budaj, defenseman prospect Erik Cernak, a conditional pick in the 2017 Draft and seventh round selection in 2017, Vasilevskiy was arguably the best goalie in the NHL.

Starting on February 27, when he made 39 saves (second most all season) on 40 shots in a 5-1 win over Ottawa, through the end of the regular season, Vasilevskiy collected 12 wins, tied with Anaheim's Jonathan Bernier for most in the league. Over that stretch, Vasilevskiy faced more shots (569) and made more saves (529) than any other league goalie.

His .930 save percentage was fifth best in the NHL among goalies with 10 or more games played over the final month and a half of the season.

"The way he played down the stretch was just phenomenal," Hedman said during Tampa Bay's exit interviews. "He's got a really bright future ahead of him."

Video: TBL@TOR: Vasilevskiy stuffs Kadri's wraparound tryFor Vasilevskiy and the Lightning, the future is now.

For the first time in his professional career, Vasilevskiy, the 19th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, enters the offseason as the unquestioned starter in the Lightning net. That can only bode well for his productivity. When Vasilevskiy and Bishop were splitting time, his consistency suffered.

In mid-November, he recorded back-to-back shutouts and logged a career-high shutout streak of 178:02. He followed that by going nearly a month (from Nov. 24 to Dec. 19) without a victory.

Vasilevskiy experienced the worst stretch of his career from the start of 2017 to February 23, losing 11 of 12 decisions and going 1-8-3. Then Bishop was traded, Vasilevskiy grabbed hold of the starter's role and he responded with his brightest professional stretch to finish the season.

"I can't speak for him, but if I was a goalie and knowing that you're the number one guy and you're going to start on a regular basis, it probably calms you down a little bit," Hedman said.

At times when asked, Vasilevskiy spoke about how infrequent starts while serving as Bishop's backup were difficult to deal with. Before joining the Lightning, he was used to getting game action every couple of days. In Tampa, he could go upwards of two weeks without a start, and the long layoffs left him rusty.

Video: CHI@TBL: Vasilevskiy robs Kane with terrific pad stopWhich isn't to suggest Vasilevskiy was happy to see Bishop get traded. On the contrary, the two sat next to each other in the Lightning locker room and had a great working relationship. Bishop showed Vasilevskiy how to be a pro. Vasilevskiy appreciated the mentoring he got from the more experienced Bishop.

"I think he learned a lot from Bish," Hedman said. "I think he was a great mentor for him."

Maybe the best lesson he learned from Bishop involved how to handle defeat. Bishop generally kept the same demeanor whether he had won or lost. If he did lose, he studied why it happened and then moved on. 

There was no dwelling on defeat.

Vasilevskiy, on the other hand, would often take losses personally. You could hear the distress in his voice after a defeat, the anguish clearly visible on his face. Following the season, he said the biggest thing he would need to work on during the offseason was keeping composed and staying even keel, like Bishop.

"Don't think too much after the games, after the bad games, and just put those bad games behind and move on," he said. "Think about the next game."

Video: NYR@TBL: Vasilevskiy stones Buchnevich in frontUndoubtedly, this offseason will be unlike any other for Vasilevskiy. He'll train and work - on "everything" he said during his exit interview - and prepare knowing when Opening Night 2017 rolls around, he'll be between the pipes.

And with the way he excelled in the starters role over the final stretch of the regular season, the Lightning can certainly feel good about that.

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