For all the hype Dallas goaltender Anton Khudobin is receiving for helping the Stars reach the Stanley Cup Final, fellow Russian Andrei Vasilevskiy is reminding everyone the Tampa Bay Lightning have a strong presence in net, too.
“If you’re going to make any sort of noise in the playoffs you need somebody back there,” coach Jon Cooper said of the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist whose 15 wins this postseason are the second-most in a single year by a Lightning goalie.
“Quarterback in football is a pretty big position,” Cooper added, “and I think goaltender in hockey is right up there.”
Nikolai Khabibulin won 16 playoff games for Tampa Bay in 2004, including Game 7 in the final against Calgary to become the only Russian goaltender to win a Stanley Cup title.
Vasilevskiy is back on hockey’s grandest stage for the first time since 2015, when he came off the bench to get his first career postseason victory as a backup to Ben Bishop, who is now with the Stars and sidelined by injury again.
Tampa Bay rebounded from losing Game 1 of the best-of-seven matchup against the red-hot Khudobin and Dallas, with Vasilevskiy stopping 27 shots in a 3-2 victory Monday night. Game 3 is Wednesday night.
The Lightning improved to 6-0 following a loss this postseason. They are 11-2 in one-goal games.
“You can’t say enough about him, what he’s done for us. Just chalk up another for outstanding,” Cooper said.
The 26-year-old Vasilevskiy — the 19th player and first goalie selected in the 2012 draft — has played every minute of his team's 21 postseason games, going 15-6 and allowing two or fewer goals in 14 of those starts.
Three more wins against the Stars, and the Lightning, who have transformed themselves from an offensive juggernaut into a team that understands defense is the key to winning in the playoffs, will hoist the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history.
While it may be easy to focus on big names such as Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point playing in front of the goaltender, Cooper said Vasilevskiy’s contribution to the team’s success has been important.
Anhony Cirelli, Ryan McDonagh, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Pat Maroon, Kevin Shattenkirk, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian have all been key contributors this postseason.
No one's outshined Vasilevskiy, though.
“You just have guys that on every single night somebody comes to the forefront. The one difference with the goaltender is he has to be there every single night,” Cooper said. “They probably get taken for granted a little bit, especially when you have one. But he’s not overlooked in our locker room. Everybody knows the value he brings to our team.”
The view from afar is spectacular, too.
“Obviously, Andrei’s one of the top goalies. ... I think it’s great that a Russian goalie’s in that organization,” Khabibulin said.
Evgeni Nabokov, who at age 39 started nine games for the Lightning in 2014-15, has the most wins of any Russian goalie in NHL history.
“Vasilevskiy’s dad was also a goalie. He’s similar to me in terms of growing up in hockey family, so his dad had influence in him 100%,” Nabokov said. “But also the talents of his, you can’t teach that. You watch how he plays, I don’t care what kind of coaching you have, he’s such a talented kid.”
Bishop helped the Lightning reach the final for the second time in franchise history before a groin injury sidelined the goalie in Game 2 against the Blackhawks. Although Vasilevskiy came on to win that night, Chicago wound up winning the Stanley Cup in six games.
Tampa Bay felt so good about the young goaltender’s future that Bishop, in the final season of his contract, lost his starting job and was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in February 2017.
Vasilevskiy has led the NHL in wins each of the past three seasons. He won the Vezina Trophy last season, and finished third behind Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Boston’s Tuuka Rask this year.
“He’s spewing with confidence, and he’s giving the other guys confidence,” Cooper said.
“You not only need someone back there to stop pucks, but who gives you confidence. That’s what Vasilevskiy does.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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