In the world of hockey, there’s an old cliche that says the team with the hottest goalie will win the Stanley Cup. Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, it seemed like Andrei Vasilevskiy was that guy. After an iffy series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Tampa Bay Lightning netminder dominated the Florida Panthers. On Tuesday night, however, that came crashing down.
During Game 1 of the ECF, Vasilevskiy surrendered six goals as the New York Rangers stormed to an impressive victory. While none of those were exactly softies — and, at this point, you can doubt the goalie at your own risk — the scoreline does destroy two separate narratives about the series.
Andrei Vasilevskiy comes back to earth, which changes the calculus of the Eastern Conference Finals
As mentioned above, we’ve seen two different versions of Andrei Vasilevskiy during the 2022 NHL Playoffs. During the first round, he looked remarkably human and allowed 22 goals across seven contests. He stepped up during the deciding game, however, and then returned to form against the Panthers. The Russian only surrendered three goals in four games and, on the whole, didn’t look bothered.
While that streak spawned plenty of tweets, stats, and columns about Vasilevskiy’s dominance, everything looked different against the Rangers. Again, the goalie didn’t look particularly bad — the Lightning caused their own problems much of the night — but the netminder didn’t step up and save the day. Anything can happen in one game, but if he’s not able to play superhuman hockey, that changes the balance of the series.
If you liked the Lightning’s chances, a large part of that was probably based on their goaltending. Having someone like Vasilevskiy in net simply covers up for mistakes; he gives Tampa the freedom to pinch aggressively, keep a third forward engaged in the offensive zone, and play their game without having to worry that much about the other end. If their goalie isn’t able to erase everyone else’s mistakes, though, Tampa will simply be more susceptible and, as we saw on Tuesday night, vulnerable. That somewhat shatters their aura of invincibility and makes them seem a bit more like any other team in the NHL.
The New York Rangers also proved that they could score against a legitimate goaltender
Andrei Vasilevskiy’s performance didn’t just change the narrative around the Lightning, though. Game 1 also allowed the New York Rangers to prove they’re a legitimate offensive threat.
Thus far in the postseason, New York had the good fortune of dodging first-choice goaltenders. Louis Domingue was in net for most of the Penguins series, and, barring a few specific instances, the Hurricanes sent Antti Raanta into the crease. That reality, combined with both series going seven games, seemed to suggest that the Rangers were just squeaking by as beneficiaries of circumstance.
Against the Lightning, however, there was no such softball. Vasilevskiy entered the series on the back of a dominant stretch against Florida; he also has a Vezina Trophy to his name and a history of strong postseason performances. Putting six goals past him does more than secure a victory; it sends a message that this Rangers squad, Kid Line and all, should be taken seriously.
All of this, of course, comes with the caveat that it was only one game. Vasilevskiy could return to form, and the Rangers probably won’t drop six every time they take the ice. Game 1, however, does suggest that the Eastern Conference Finals will be closer than some observers might have thought.