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Conference Final

Vasilevskiy conjuring visions of countryman Tretiak for Lightning

Russia-born goaltender raising game for Tampa Bay in conference final

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

WASHINGTON -- On the surface, the comparison seems ridiculous.

Mentioning Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 23-year-old Russia-born Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender who has played one full season as a No. 1 in the NHL, in the same sentence as Vladislav Tretiak, one of the greatest goalies in hockey history and unquestionably the best to come out of Russia, feels like a reach.

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

But Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean says it's legitimate. In fact, it was during Tampa Bay's development camp six years ago, days after the Lightning selected Vasilevskiy with the No. 19 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, that Jean noticed how similar the then 17-year-old goalie was to the all-time great.

"It was like, 'Oh my God, this guy is just like Vladislav Tretiak,' " Jean said about the first time he worked with Vasilevskiy.

Jean would know; he also worked at Tretiak's summer goalie school in Brossard, Quebec, in the late 1980s and early '90s. He did drills on the ice with Tretiak, the 1989 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who won three Olympic gold medals and 10 World Championship gold medals for the Soviet Union.

When Jean put Vasilevskiy through some of those same drills, he saw him handle the puck and control the game like Tretiak once did. He could see Vasilevskiy's athleticism, skating and competitiveness were similar to Tretiak's.

"The same kind of approach and work ethic and compete is in [Vasilevskiy]," Jean said. "To this day, I see things in [Vasilevskiy], I'm like, 'My God, it's so similar.' "

And if you think Jean is exaggerating, just ask Tretiak. 

"It's appropriate to compare Vasilevskiy with me," Tretiak, the President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, told NHL.com at the 2018 World Championship in Denmark. "I was the first goalie to play the butterfly. And he plays a full butterfly. An outright full butterfly. He's tall (6-foot-3). I like his style. He's got character, the character I had, I'm absolutely sure in that. That's the similarity. And he also competes for every puck, just like me."

Vasilevskiy, born in 1994, 10 years after Tretiak retired, is a Vezina Trophy finalist playing in the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals. He allowed 10 goals on 62 shots in the first two games, each a loss, but responded with 36 saves in a 4-2 win in Game 3 on Tuesday. 

The Lightning trail the best-of-7 series 2-1. Game 4 is at Capital One Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). 

"He's our best player," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. 

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Vasilevskiy was Russia's top teenage goalie at the time he was drafted. 

He debuted in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia's top professional league, as an 18-year-old for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. He went 14-8-5 with 2.21 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 28 games as a 19-year-old in 2013-14, when he led Ufa to the third round of the KHL playoffs.

Video: TBL@WSH, Gm3: Vasilevskiy turns away Ovechkin's blast

Vasilevskiy arrived in North America the following season. He couldn't speak English. He learned by listening. He never took a class. 

"It was hard for sure, the first couple of months in Syracuse [of the American Hockey League]," Vasilevskiy said, "but after a half a season I was good."

He's not comfortable with his second language. He can carry a conversation, but he doesn't like doing it in large groups and he will not speak when there are cameras present, not even in Russian. The Lightning public relations staff denies any interview request for Vasilevskiy if it involves a camera.

"He's literally the guy whose actions speak louder than his words," Lightning goaltender Peter Budaj said.

Jean and Lighting forward Nikita Kucherov each said Vasilevskiy has a comedic side, though, and he's not afraid to show it, even in English if it's in a comfortable environment, such as inside the dressing room or on the ice.

"He has perfect timing," Kucherov said. "He finds a way to make everybody laugh in here. He's a great guy. But he's the guy that's like, 'Don't talk to me, I'm just going to do my work.' "

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Vasilevskiy's work ethic impressed his teammates as soon as he joined Tampa Bay. 

"His first year [2014-15], he was here, like, three or four hours before practice," Kucherov said, "and then he stayed for the next three hours after practice. The guys would joke about it, 'Vasy, are you sleeping here?' " 

He was working out and stretching, taking care of his body with massage therapy and physical therapy. He was watching video. He was always first in, last out. Nothing has changed. 

"I've never seen him dog a drill or not give his best in any situation," Jean said. "I've never had to mention, 'Hey, Vasy, let's pick it up, let's turn it on.' Never. It's sometimes the opposite, like, 'OK, Vasy, we need to be done now.' He's relentless."

Vasilevskiy grew into the No. 1 job last season. He grabbed it around midseason, performing well enough to allow the Lightning to trade Ben Bishop, who had been their No. 1 since the 2013-14 season, to the Los Angeles Kings. Vasilevskiy finished the season 23-17-7 with a 2.61 GAA and .917 save percentage in 50 games.

Video: TBL@WSH, Gm3: Vasilevskiy robs Djoos on odd-man rush

He established himself as a top goalie this season by leading the NHL with 29 wins and a .931 save percentage (among goalies with 20 or more starts) at the All-Star break. He represented the Lightning at the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Tampa Bay.

Vasilevskiy's second half of the season was sluggish, like the Lightning's, but he finished tied with for the NHL lead in wins (44, with Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets) and shutouts (eight, with Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators). He had a 2.62 GAA and .919 save percentage for Tampa Bay, which had the most points in the Eastern Conference (113).

He's 9-4 with a 2.68 GAA and .915 save percentage in the playoffs.

"I'm not a backup," Vasilevskiy said. "I had to show results."

He said the prominent role as the Lightning's No. 1 goalie has created greater stress on him, which is why he values balance in his life, especially away from the rink, where his wife, Ksenia, and their 2-year-old son, Lukas, give him perspective and an outlet.

"Game time, no [messing] around, totally full focus," Vasilevskiy said. "But at home, I try to forget all the good and bad stuff that happened at the rink and just enjoy my family. Every day I understand more this job is really hard, and even on the worst days you have to find something positive. You find that positive in your family." 

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The pressure is on Vasilevskiy now. The goalie who detests the spotlight is playing the most important role on a team trying to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. He can't hide. 

The good news is he's not new to this stage. 

In 2015, Vasilevskiy, then 20, started Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks because Bishop was injured. He allowed two goals on 19 shots in a 2-1 loss. 

A year later, he played in all seven games of the conference final against the Pittsburgh Penguins because Bishop sustained a series-ending injury early in Game 1. He won three games and had a .925 save percentage, making 37 saves in a 2-1 loss in Game 7 at Pittsburgh. 

"Huge experience," Vasilevskiy said. "but now it's a little bit different because it's more pressure, more responsibility."

The Lightning put it on him because Vasilevskiy can handle it. They trust he'll be the difference in pushing them to a championship.

"Andrei has been very good," Tretiak said. "I really believe that Vasilevskiy can still steal the series with the [Capitals]." 

Pavel Lysenkov and Igor Eronko of NHL.com/ru contributed to this story.
 

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