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Andrei Vasilevskiy and the universal language of playoff hockey

TAMPA — As usual, Andrei Vasilevskiy didn't speak in front of the cameras after the game. He has been like that since he hit the NHL. He still isn't comfortable with his English on TV.

But Vasilevskiy spoke loudly and clearly in the first-round win over New Jersey, which concluded Saturday and in just five games. The Lightning and its 23-year-old goaltender made quick work of the Devils and earned some rest while the Bruins and Maple Leafs pound each other.

And maybe Vasilevskiy put some questions to bed, like how he'd perform on hockey's biggest stage in his first season as a No. 1. All eyes were on him as the series began, including those belonging to Hall of Fame netminder Ken Dryden, who was visiting with his old coach, Scotty Bowman and who as a 23-year-old lead the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup.

You never know where greatness begins.

So it is with Vasilevskiy, who won four times in five games. That is what he did during the regular season, winning 44 games, and that is what the Vezina Trophy nominee is doing now, evidenced by a 2.01 goals against and glistening .941 save percentage against New Jersey.

"When your team is playing better, it gives you a lot more confidence," Vasilevskiy said. "Now it's over with and we have to move on to the second round."

Vasilevskiy moved on quite well. After giving up five goals in a Game 3 loss, displayed an ironclad short-term memory and held the Devils to two goals over the final two games, both on power plays, one on a 5-on-3 advantage. Mostly he closed the door, including several saves off breakaway chance, including two Saturday. Vasilevskiy credited the shutdown defense in front of him.

"I know he's a young guy, but we feed off him, those big saves," Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi said.

"He just came up huge in every big situation," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "There would be times in this series he'd go seven to nine minutes without seeing a shot, then he would face a power play or a big-time shot. The timely saves were phenomenal for us. Even when he played the puck. He was putting it in a position for the defensemen to handle it. He was a pro. It was a big-time performance for him all five games."

It was the kind of performance that underlines just why the Lightning felt comfortable in trading Ben Bishop. This is why. The now concluded series is why.

It's hard to tell which matters more sometimes, the defense in front of a goalie or a goalie behind the defense. Let's just say Vasilevskiy and his team are working in tandem right now, and the tandem is imposing.

It will have to stay that way next round and any round after that. FYI, Vasilevskiy went 3-1 against the Maple Leafs during the season with a 2.47 goals against, and while he went just 1-3 against the Bruins, but with a 2.30 goals against, and his last outing against them was a 4-0 shutout that maybe served notice, though not as much as Brad Marchand's jabbing stick will if Boston-Tampa Bay happens. It will be another level of pressure on Vasilevskiy, though you couldn't tell that Saturday.

"Well, I just want to play hockey and not think about anything else and what I still have to do or don't have to do," Vasilevskiy said. "I have to focus on the process and don't think about the past, think about the future."

"He's not always going to be perfect the whole game," Girardi said, "But he made those saves he had to make. Guys are trying to block shots, making it easier for him. But when it gets through, he's there."

He was against New Jersey. He'll have to do it again Toronto or Boston. It's about what you do, not what you say. And that's fine by this kid. He apparently likes when the lights are bright. He is speaking the universal playoff language. Just no cameras after.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.

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