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Morning After Thoughts: Vasilevskiy steals two points and shows that The Big Cat is back

Vasilevskiy looks like he’s righted the ship in his play.

NHL: FEB 04 Golden Knights at Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It hasn’t been an often occurrence this season that the Tampa Bay Lightning have had their doors beaten down by another team. The instances could probably be counted on one hand. That said, last night’s victory against the Vegas Golden Knights (the first time Tampa Bay has ever beaten the Golden Knights at home) was wholly undeserved and entirely due to some fortunate luck and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Vegas controlled a whopping 58% of the shot attempts at 5v5, generated an xGF% of 65%, led in scoring chances 24-10, and high danger chances 6-1. The heat map of this game isn’t flattering for the Lightning.

Vegas at Tampa Bay, Heat Map 5v5
Natural Stat Trick,

Tampa Bay did do an effective job keeping Vegas away from the front of the net, but little else in slowing down their attack. Offensively, it looks as though Tampa excelled at getting quality shots from the slot, but that also belies the truth—two of the goals from that location were deflections (one being a double deflection).

The only goal that was a genuinely good shot from a dangerous area was Tampa Bay’s first goal by Brayden Point, which was also one of the few times in the game where Tampa Bay pushed Vegas back and forced the Golden Knights to scramble in their own end.

The second goal saw an Ondrej Palat point shot deflect off Anthony Cirelli’s stick and then Tyler Johnson’s stick before getting by Marc-Andre Fleury. The third goal saw a Point shot from high in the zone get deflected by Steven Stamkos right in front of Fleury’s face. Now, these goals still matter, but it’d be foolish to say Tampa Bay earned this win due to their play. Lucky breaks happen and Tampa Bay did just enough to get them last night.

Tampa Bay’s passing was inconsistent in all three zones, their puck management was poor, their defense struggled against the Vegas forecheck, and they passed out of shooting opportunities too often last night. Tampa Bay was also playing with five defenders after Jan Rutta suffered a lower body injury in the first period.

I don’t expect a call up from the Syracuse Crunch, but the Lightning could see this as a moment to see what Cal Foote can do in a limited role. Rutta is a bottom pairing defender with strong underlying numbers, but he wasn’t a world beater on the back end. They still have Braydon Coburn healthy and able to play, but Tampa Bay seems intent on managing how many games he gets. The team also has right handed defenseman Luke Schenn, though he plays a slower and more physical game. We’ll see what the front office and coaching staff do.

Once we add in the comical officiating last night, it felt as if Tampa Bay was bound to cough up their lead and allow a flurry of goals to concede the contest. However, the Bolts had the best player on the ice last night in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Vasilevskiy went 23-for-25 against Vegas with one goal coming on a shot that he wasn’t able to fully reset for, and the other getting deflected right in front of him. Given the amount of pressure Vasilevskiy was seeing last night, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if another had gone in, especially with two pucks beating him only to be saved by the post. Yet, that didn’t happen, and like the entire month of January, Vasilevskiy stood tall and stole two points for the Lightning.

Since the new year, Vasilevskiy is 10-0-1, has allowed 18 goals, has a .948 save percentage at 5v5 (.946 in all situations), a GSAA of 7.54 at 5v5 (12.25 in all situations), and has put all of the issues he faced earlier in the season behind him. Out of every goaltender who has started 10 or more games since 2020 began, Vasilevskiy ranks in the top three in all of these categories. It’s fair to say the Big Cat has returned to his old ways.

As strong as Vasilevskiy has been for the past month, his overall numbers still haven’t been flattering given how much he struggled during the first half of the season, but it does appear that he’s on the right trajectory heading into the final stretch of the regular season.

The question at the moment doesn’t center around Vasilevskiy’s play, but the Lightning as a whole. They’ve struggled to drive play since returning from the All-Star Break and it’s shown in games against Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Vegas.

As troubling as this looks, there is an ebb and flow to every season and Tampa Bay is one of a handful of teams that has the talent and system in place to bounce back. If this trend continues for another five games or so, then it might be time to take a closer look at what is ailing Tampa Bay’s play. Still, there are worse positions for the Lightning be in, and they’ve surged their way from playoff bubble to threatening the Bruins for the division lead.