WASHINGTON — It has been a somewhat odd post-season for some of the league’s best goaltenders.
While Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck has been steady for the most part, the other two Vezina Trophy finalists have been far more inconsistent. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, who allowed 21 goals in a second-round loss to the Jets, was pulled in Game 7 after giving up two goals in just over 10 minutes.
Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy seemed to be staring down a similar fate after having given up 10 goals in the first two games of the Eastern Conference final. So the fact that he bounced back with a 36-save performance in a 4-2 win in Game 3 was a relief to himself and his teammates.
“Any time you can have a really good individual performance that helps your team win it’s only going to help your confidence,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of Vasilevskiy. “I think it’s maybe even better for him. I know he takes a lot of things very personal and he wants to be the difference maker every night, and he was a difference maker for us last night.
“We haven’t strayed away from the tons of confidence that we have in Vasy since Day 1. That’s never going to change. But he played extremely well last night and hopefully, he can build on that.
When we see him playing that well, it gives confidence to everyone. We need to play that well to win in these playoffs, especially against Washington. We had a good team win.”
Vasilevskiy was instrumental in the first two rounds of the playoffs, allowing just 10 goals in five games to New Jersey and then outplaying Boston’s Tuukka Rask. But against Washington, he had what might have been his two worst games, something that he was well aware of.
“Just tried to stay positive and play my game,” said Vasilevskiy. “We played well yesterday and I could feel that confidence yesterday from our guys, and I was pretty confident, too.
“It’s very important, especially in the playoffs, good or bad game doesn’t matter, turn the page and start over again and again. That’s how you get success.
COULD BACKSTROM BE BACK IN?
For the first time in these playoffs, the Capitals might have noticed Nicklas Backstrom’s absence from the lineup on Tuesday. That’s because for the first time since injuring his right hand in Game 5 in the second round, the team lost without him.
Whether that speeds up his recovery is anyone’s guess. But Backstrom, who has missed all three games of this series, did skate on Wednesday.
“You miss him in every way, shape or form,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, who refused to speculate on Backstrom’s status for Game 4 on Thursday. “He’s a player who has a lot of impact on our team. He’s one of the guys that leads in the locker-room. When you need a big play, a big performance, he’s usually one of the guys that will step up. He’s one of our leaders.
“You look at last night I thought a lot of the Tampa Bay — and (head coach Jon Cooper) will say the same thing — his top guys made a difference. And Nicky is one of those top guys that makes a difference for us all the time when you need them to make the difference.”
Three games in and the home teams have so far failed to hold serve. It’s something that is not unusual for either Washington or Tampa Bay.
The Capitals went 5-1 on the road in the first two rounds, while the Lightning went 3-1. Heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference final, the Vegas Golden Knights had gone 5-2 and the Winnipeg Jets were 4-2.
“We’ve seen it this playoffs, that’s for sure,” said Stamkos. “For whatever reason, at this time of the year there are more distractions than in the regular season for sure. A lot of people have friends and family coming down and ticket requests. Sometimes there’s that little added pressure of playing at home and wanting to obviously do good things in front of your fans.
“When you get on the road you’re just together with the guys and you just go out there and play simple hockey.”
KILL THE PENALTIES, ALREADY
Special teams have so far been a big part of this series, with Tampa Bay scoring five power play goals in three games and Washington having scored three. But Lightning head coach Jon Cooper warned that the special teams battle likely won’t continue.
“That’s not the way it goes,” said Cooper. “Guys are checking with their legs. It’s just too tight. Guys know the importance of not taking penalties, so the five-on-five game is huge.
“Now that I say that, penalties will be 8-7 tomorrow.”
Ask Tampa Bay’s Ryan McDonagh what makes Victor Hedman so effective on the back end and he said it’s his teammate’s mind more so than his body.
“He’s just so smart,” McDonagh said of the Norris Trophy finalist. “His awareness on the ice is incredible. Obviously, his ability to get around the rink, his size and his speed is very evident, but I think his awareness and his smarts in a game is something that might not be noticed by the everyday fan, so to speak … He’s a pleasure to watch on the ice.”
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