ST. LOUIS — This showdown was supposed to be about the best team in the East versus the best in the West.
In reality, the Lightning’s 3-0 win over the Blues on Tuesday night pretty much came down to this:
Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best goalies in the league.
Vasilevskiy bailed out the Lightning often in its fifth straight win, his NHL-leading 20th. And of his 32 saves, Vasilevskiy’s best one is the one that never counted.
With the Lightning clinging to a one-goal lead in the second period, Alex Steen’s dump-in attempt took a wild carom off the side of the glass, darting directly toward the Lightning net. Vasilevskiy somehow reacted fast enough to sprawl out and get his right toe on it. From his back, Vasilevskiy smothered the rebound.
Both weren’t official shots — as the puck was determined out of play — but the save will forever be in Lightning lore.
"It’s unbelievable," center Tyler Johnson said. "I’ve seen him do that in practice. He’s one of those guys that I think he actually likes to be down and out just so he can surprise some people. What he’s capable of, I don’t even know how that’s possible,"
Vasilevskiy, for a 6-foot-3 goaltender, has extremely quick reflexes, which he used on the play.
"Just instincts," he said. "Just get lucky,"
But teammates believe it’s more than that.
"The guys call him ‘Big Cat’ for a reason," coach Jon Cooper said. "Good reflexes like a cat right there."
The Lightning opened its daunting stretch of 17 of the next 24 games on the road. And this was a big one. It was the top team in the Eastern Conference versus the best in the West.
"A measuring stick for us," Johnson said.
Sure, the Blues were banged up, missing top-line forward Jaden Schwartz and key defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo. But Tampa Bay hasn’t won in St. Louis since December 2009.
The Blues took control early on, but the Lightning hung in there, largely due to a couple big blocker saves by Vasilevskiy. Tampa Bay struck first in the final minute of the opening period.
Johnson — who is flourishing with a season-high five-game points streak since getting moved to wing — made a heck of a play to set up Brayden Point. Johnson circled the Blues net, found a streaking Point, who hit the post from the slot, then put in the rebound. It was Point’s fourth straight game with a goal, a career-high.
Johnson said he thought about a shot, but didn’t think he had an angle. Then he thought wraparound. Then he saw Point. "Lucky he was there," he said.
The Lightning got lucky in the third with eight minutes to go. Vladimir Sobotka had a wide open net. Missed through the crease. It’s like the puck gave up.
You knew then the Lightning was bound to take advantage. Nikita Kucherov ripped in his 21st goal of the season a couple minutes later, set up by Mikhail Sergachev, who had his first 20-minute performance of his career.
But Vasilevskiy made sure it held up with some more dazzling stops in the last two minutes.
"He was up for the task tonight," Cooper said.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSMith.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Point 13 (Killorn, Johnson), 19:15. Penalties—Steen, STL, (tripping), 6:39; Point, TB, (high sticking), 14:06; Sundqvist, STL, (high sticking), 14:06.
Second Period—None. Penalties—Brodziak, STL, (hooking), 15:34.
Third Period—2, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 21 (Sergachev), 13:37. 3, Tampa Bay, Johnson 7 (Hedman, Point), 19:38. Penalties—Berglund, STL, (high sticking), 1:37; Paquette, TB, (slashing), 4:35.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 6-12-7—25. St. Louis 6-12-14—32.
Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 3; St. Louis 0 of 1.
Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 20-4-1 (32 shots-32 saves). St. Louis, Allen 17-7-2 (24-22).
A—18,290 (19,150). T—2:20.
Referees—Pierre Lambert, Tim Peel. Linesmen—Scott Cherrey, Derek Nansen.