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As Vasilevskiy goes, so do the Bolts

Improved play from the Vezina-winning goaltender has been one of the biggest reasons for Tampa Bay's run of good form

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has an opportunity tonight at AMALIE Arena against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m. puck drop) to set a new franchise record for longest point streak by a Lightning netminder.

Vasilevskiy hasn't lost in regulation since December 14 versus Washington, going 14-0-2 since to match a 16-game run by Nikolai Khabibulin (12-0-4) during the 2002-03 season for consecutive games without a regulation loss.

At the end of November, that type of run by Vasilevskiy this season might have seemed unfathomable. After the first two months of the season, Vasilevskiy had lost nearly as many games as he'd won with a 9-7-1 record. His goals-against average was up close to three goals a game. His longest win and point streak was three. Some speculated Vasilevskiy needed a rest. Maybe last season's playoff debacle had carried over into this season. Maybe the Lightning should go with backup Curtis McElhinney for a few games until Vasilevskiy could work through his issues.

Vasilevskiy heard those concerns and used them to fuel a remarkable turnaround.

Video: Preview | Lightning vs Penguins

Since December 1, Vasilevskiy has made 22 starts. He's won 18 of them, the most wins in the NHL by a wide margin over that stretch (the next highest goalie has 12). He's posted a pair of shutouts. His save percentage (.926) and GAA (2.21) since then have been more Vasilevskiy-like too.

So what's changed for Vasilevskiy from the first two months of the season to what we're seeing now? Is there anything he's doing differently that maybe wasn't happening back in October and November?

"I don't know if it's so much Andrei Vasilevskiy as it is our team," assistant coach Todd Richards said. "I think when your goalie plays better, your team plays better. When your team plays better, your goalie plays better. I think it all works hand in hand. He is a worker. He is a guy who takes tremendous pride in his game, does not like giving up goals in practice, and obviously that translates into games. I think as a whole, our penalty kill got better. Vasy got better. I think we're tied together. And that's what happens with guys in that position, it's no different than a football team with the quarterback, a pitcher with a baseball team. Those are the guys that really have major impact in the game. Other guys do as well, but goalies just because they're the last line of defense have a major impact in games."

The Lightning penalty kill since November 1 is ranked first in the NHL at 88.6 percent. Over the first month of the season, it was 29th at 71.1 percent. That's certainly a major turnaround spearheaded by a combination of the penalty killers doing a better job being more aggressive, blocking shots and getting pucks out of the zone when the opportunity arises as well as Vasilevskiy upping his play to deny the scoring chances that do make their way on net.

The Lightning have been one of the NHL's best defensive teams since the beginning of December too, allowing just 2.34 goals per game, second fewest in the League. Surely, Vasilevskiy's improved play between the pipes has been a major catalyst keeping the number of goals down. But his teammates in front of him have been more committed defensively too. Toward the end of November, the Lightning started to hone in on how they wanted to play defensively. They were keeping the number of high-quality chances to a minimum. They were getting the puck out of their defensive zone cleanly and efficiently. And they were eliminating the turnovers that led to so many odd-man rushes and breakaway chances against that plagued the Bolts over the first couple months of the season.

Video: Cooper on match-up with Penguins

It took a while for the results to catch up to the play on the ice, but when it did, the Lightning went on a 10-game win streak that allowed them to move back into a playoff position and solidly in second place in the Atlantic Division. And it also allowed Vasilevskiy to go on a 10-game win streak of his own, one win shy of matching the franchise record set by Louis Domingue last season, as well as his current 16-game point run.

"We don't want to give up those opportunities," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "That's on us, but we know Vasy, he'll make tough saves more often than not. When you see him do that, it gives the whole team a boost. You need your goalie to be your best player and he pretty much is every night. It's a tough position to play…He's a Vezina Trophy winner and the best goalie in the league. It's a lot of fun to play in front of him."

Vasilevskiy won the first Vezina in franchise history following a 2018-19 regular season in which he went 39-10-4 over 53 starts. He put up a career-high 44 wins in 2017-18. He's led the League for victories each of the last two seasons.

As good as he's been in the past, however, Vasilevskiy might be playing the best hockey of his career currently.

"We know Vasy's going to make tough saves for us," Hedman said. "He's been phenomenal, that's the bottom line. He gives us a chance to win every night. But it's a constant effort for our group to make life easier for our goalie as well. I think this year it's been a lot better than it was last year."

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