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Andrei Vasilevskiy vs. Braden Holtby

Goalies have returned to top form heading into Lightning vs. Capitals series

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

Goaltending is an integral part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. To better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the goaltenders, the final 100 goals allowed by each in the regular season and each goal allowed in the playoffs were charted, with the help of Apex Video Analysis and Save Review System from Upper Hand Inc., to see what patterns emerge.

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby struggled late in the regular season but have bounced back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Holtby, who won the Vezina Trophy voted as the NHL's best goalie in 2016, was not starting when the Capitals opened the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He has a .926 save percentage since replacing Philipp Grubauer during Game 2 of that series and is 8-3 in the playoffs.


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Vasilevskiy was the runaway leader for the Vezina the first half of the season before fading down the stretch but has returned to form in the playoffs, going 8-2 with a .927 save percentage.

Vasilevskiy and Holtby will go head-to-head in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 1 at Tampa Bay on Friday. 

Here is an in-depth look at each goalie's game:

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy tied for the NHL lead with 44 wins (Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets) and eight shutouts (Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators) and had a .919 save percentage despite struggling after the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game. The 23-year-old rediscovered his early form in the playoffs, showing off his incredibly fast skating, explosive power from his knees, and Gumbylike flexibility from any position. 


Goal trends

Blocker side: Five of the six mid- and high-blocker goals in the playoffs came in the second round against the Boston Bruins, who scored eight of their 12 goals in the five-game series on Vasilevskiy's blocker side. That matches the regular season pattern: Vasilevskiy gave up 47 percent of his goals over the pads on his blocker side, which is 16 percent above the average. New Jersey Devils defenseman Sami Vatanen beat him cleanly there with a wrist shot from between the top of the face-off circles in Game 2 of the first round. It was a perfect shot just over the pad, but it also showed Vasilevskiy's tendency to open, turn and reach on that side, including a blocker save that left him on his backside and scrambling on Boston's only goal in Game 3.

Vasilevskiy is also more likely to counter-rotate moving to his right, with his legs going one way and upper body the other, which contributed to the higher blocker-side goal totals and three times as many goals coming from outside on the left wing (6.1 percent in the regular season) compared to the right wing (2 percent).

Long rebounds: Vasilevskiy's tendency to extend on the blocker side creates recovery delays on rebounds off his right pad, but those loose pucks are more likely to end up bouncing to the face-off dot and beyond because his pads are designed to generate active rebounds. He cleared the zone on some penalty kills against the Devils by kicking out low shots.

Got to get it up: Vasilevskiy's explosive power and ability to tap into it even when extended is among the best in the NHL, so it's no surprise he doesn't give up many goals along the ice outside his skates. Those are often indicative of backdoor tap-ins, but his powerful pushes, long legs and flexibility mean shooters usually have to get it over his pads to score.

Screens and low shots: Screens have played a role in half the playoff goals against Vasilevskiy, more than double the average. He tries to find the puck at the point by lifting to look over traffic, and the delay getting back down and sealing the ice cost him on low shots under the pads in the regular season and contributed to two five-hole goals in the playoffs.


Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Whatever the reason for his last season slide, Holtby has since combined the explosive power that defined him early in his NHL career with a more controlled game plan that relies less often on his ability to scramble. He's delivered strong, precise movements into saves, like against Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz with nine seconds left in the second period of Game 6, which was tied at the time. Holby beat a cross-ice pass to square up and rob Schultz from the low shot. The Capitals won 2-1 in overtime.


Goal trends

Deflections against the grain: Deflections played a role in 12 of 23 goals (52 percent) against Holtby in the playoffs, above his 18 percent in the regular season and the 20.5 percent average for goals tracked in breaking down playoff starting goalies the past two seasons. His tendency to push his body into a shot rather than reaching is considered a strength, but it becomes a liability if you get him moving the wrong way. Five of the deflection goals were against the grain, when the puck is moving one way and is tipped back in the other direction. It's easier said than done, but worth trying: 29 percent of his tracked regular-season goals were against the grain, almost double the 14.8 percent average. 

Along the ice: Goals along the ice are often associated with tap-ins after cross-ice passes, but Holtby has additional exposure on low shots through screens (22 percent of his goals in the regular season and 21.7 percent in the playoffs) because his narrow butterfly reduces low coverage. It is tied to his upright torso, which also creates a delay in recovery movements, with the lead pad pulling back and out of the way before he pushes, leaving him susceptible to quick low shots on rebounds. That helps explain eight playoff goals outside his skates.

Low blocker: Holtby gave up more goals high on the glove side (23 percent) last season, but low blocker continues to be a better spot. There have been times Holtby was caught using a passive one-pad down save on rushes from the right wing, dropping his right knee and opening up the blocker side, including a shorthanded goal by Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert in Game 5 of the first round.

But for the most part, Holtby's low blocker exposure comes from that upright torso off the release, with his shoulders pulled back and limiting his ability to reach shots just over the pads, leaving him more reliant on shifting his body into these low shots.


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