“That’s the game of hockey, you’ve got to beat the guy on the other side, you’ve got to be better than him,” the Tampa Bay Lightning goalie said during Stanley Cup Final media day Sunday. “Big challenge, and it’ll be interesting for the fans, for the experts, for everybody.”
Vasilevskiy has the opportunity against the Montreal Canadiens, starting with Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS), to prove that he is currently the best in the world at his position.
Standing in the other net will be Price, the Canadiens goalie who has re-energized the best-in-the-world debate with his performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“He gives us a huge amount of confidence,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said of Vasilevskiy, “and it’s similar to the goalie on the other side.”
But they do not get the same level of attention.
A dominant narrative of Montreal’s playoff run is that it’s built on Price’s back, that without him the Canadiens would not be four wins from winning the Cup for the first time since 1993.
Their top four defensemen — Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson — get the credit for the role they’ve played and the penalty kill that is 30-for-30 in the past 13 games, but Price is considered the top reason for their success.
The narrative of Tampa Bay’s repeat run to the Cup Final is that it’s all about the way the team has played in front of Vasilevskiy; the power play clicking at 37.7 percent and forward Nikita Kucherov coming back after missing the regular season to lead in playoff scoring with 27 points (five goals, 22 assists).
Vasilevskiy gets his due credit for being a big part of it, but he’s not the biggest story of the Lightning’s bid to repeat.
“Montreal doesn’t have Brayden Point centering their first line or Nikita Kucherov as first line right wing, so maybe that’s where it starts,” Brian Boucher, an NBC analyst and former NHL goalie said. “Shea Weber, although I think he’s held in high regard, I don’t think he’s held in the same regard as Victor Hedman right now. Weber is a bit older, Hedman is a bit more dynamic. Maybe that’s what it is. There’s just more players on Tampa in their primes and more dynamic.”
Valid points all around, but Vasilevskiy should be considered as big of a factor in the Lightning’s success considering how he stacks up against Price.
He has 12 wins in 18 starts. Price has 12 wins in 17 starts.
They each have 13 starts with a .900 or better save percentage.
Vasilevskiy has a 1.99 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and four shutouts, including one in each of the Lightning’s series-clinching wins.
Price has 2.02 GAA, .934 save percentage and one shutout.
They’re almost equal in the workload, with Vasilevskiy facing 31.05 shots per game and Price facing 31.17.
The difference is the Lightning have given Vasilevskiy more goal support, scoring 3.22 per game to the Canadiens’ 2.53.
“Part of our success has been trying not to rely on Vasilevskiy,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I think there are parts of years past where it was like we need the goalie or we’re in trouble. In the end, if you want to win, you need everybody. … In saying that, we know what we have in our goaltender. We’ve watched him grow into the winner he is, the competitor he is. You don’t get to this level unless you’ve got great goaltending, hence why both goalies’ statistics are the same, why both teams are still playing. In large part it’s because the goalies have been great.”
That’s exactly it for the Lightning. Vasilevskiy hasn’t necessarily been the main story in any of their games, win or lose, but he’s always been there when needed.
“When you need a big save, saves in certain moments that can be momentum changers, he’s always there,” Killorn said.
Like early in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals against the New York Islanders on Thursday.
Islanders forward Anthony Beauvillier was sprung for a breakaway at 2:25 of the first period. Vasilevskiy denied him with a right pad save.
That was the first of 18 shots he faced in Game 7, clearly not a lot of action largely because his teammates were so good in front of him. But the Lightning scored one goal, and it was Vasilevskiy who made sure they didn’t need another.
“He’s the best goalie in the world we think, and he gives us a chance to win every night,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “When you only have to score one goal in a Game 7, that says a lot. He’s the backbone.”
But is he the best?
Vasilevskiy received overwhelming support from his peers in the annual poll conducted by the NHL Players’ Association in the regular season, when more than 500 players were asked a series of 14 questions, including who is the best goalie in the NHL?
He got 54.12 percent of the votes, ending Price’s run of getting the majority of the vote for three straight years. Price got 8.25 percent this year.
Now that they’re in the Cup Final, each here with similar statistics despite different narratives, it’s an opportunity for Vasilevskiy to prove his peers right.
“It’s a big personal challenge for myself,” he said.