GLENDALE, Ariz ó Nikita Kucherovís toughest challenge isnít facing Canadiens goalie Carey Price, or Columbusí Sergei Bobrovsky.
It comes in practice against Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"Iíve been saying, I thought he was going to be the top goalie in the league in a year or two - but he is right now," said Kucherov, the NHLís leading goal scorer. "I feel if you can score on Vasy you can score on any goalie in the league."
Not many are scoring on Vasilevskiy these days. The Lightning goalie is off to a historic start. His 3-0 victory over the Blues Tuesday night gave him a league-high 20 wins, making him the sixth goalie in NHL history to reach that mark in his first 25 starts.
Vasilevskiy is the league leader in goals against average (2.15) and save percentage (.933). NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes says he might be his favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the leagueís top goalie.
Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos are likely locks for Januaryís All-Star Game in Tampa. Both say Vasilevskiy should be there, too.
"Thereís no question who weíd vote for in here," Stamkos said.
"This guy is an All Star, this guy is a Vezina Trophy goaltender," said NBSCN broadcaster Brian Boucher, a former NHL goalie. "Iíd be shocked if at the end of his career, weíre not talking about several Stanley Cups in his resume. I really think heís that good."
This is all a dream come true for Vasilevskiy, 23, who spent a couple years behind Ben Bishop before the Lightning dealt Bishop before the trade deadline last season.
"Iím having so much fun so far," Vasilevskiy said. "But itís a long season."
Vasilevskiy said his main adjustment in becoming No. 1 has been a mental one. Not getting too high after strong streaks, or down after bad goal or two. You mention making the All-Star team, and Vasilevskiy admits itís "one of my hockey dreams."
"But I just play my game," he said. "After two months, weíll see."
Vasilevskiy said it helps heís played so much, keeping him from over-thinking. Heís started 25 of the teamís 30 games, a workload he embraces.
"Iím young, so I can handle it," Vasilevskiy said. "Itís more difficult for my mind. There are a lot of things that appear in your mind, youíve got to handle it, be prepared. You canít think, if you win a couple games, you canít think youíll win the next game for sure. Iíve got to be tough mentally."
Physically, Vasilevskiy has made adjustments in his preparations that help him stay fresh. Heís being smart with his time in the gym, knowing when to take a morning skate.
Vasilevskiy appears even more calm in net. Part of it is that Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said Vasilevskiy has improved on identifying shooters and handling the forecheck. Vasilevskiy is still no Bishop in terms of puck-handling, but is much better.
And Vasilevskiy is more mature in handling his in-game emotions, something that rubs off on teammates.
"Heís really mentally strong," Kucherov said. "He gives up a goal, he stays calm. Doesnít matter if weíre down 2-0, he still thinks it is 0-0. He doesnít think about it."
Vasilevskiy approaches practices with the same compete level as games. Teammates dub him the "Big Cat" for his quick catlike reflexes, which he uses to thwart even their post-practice shootout attempts.
"They start to celebrate when they score, and Iím just really (ticked)," Vasilevskiy said, smiling. "But itís fun too. We make each other better."
And Vasilevskiy one of the best.
"I knew he was going to be good," Kucherov said. "I didnít know he was going to be unbelievable."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.