Votes for the regular season awards had been tabulated and in a surprising outcome, Vasilevskiy was edged by Vegas Golden Knights netminder Marc-Andre Fleury for the Vezina Trophy. No matter. This wasn't the hardware Vasilevskiy was focused on, as his agent Dan Milstein expressly stated, nor was Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion in his own right.
The Vezina Trophy, as voted on by general managers, was fairly close: pic.twitter.com/b6TFnUHSnH
— Seth Rorabaugh (@SethRorabaugh) June 29, 2021
As it stands, however, Vasilevskiy is now well-positioned to walk away with two major trophies, a second consecutive Stanley Cup, along with the Conn Smythe Trophy, adjudged to the postseason's most valuable player.
Tampa Bay, the defending champion, entered the Final as a massive favourite over Montreal, who finished the regular season 18th overall, before using its expertly deployed counterattack and superior goaltending to knock off Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas in succession. And though it's little surprise that the Lightning hold a 2-0 series lead as the series heads back to Montreal, it's difficult to declare that they've played their best game, with the possible exception of the Yanni Gourde line.
Montreal was the superior team in Game 2, and through two games has posted a 56.73 Corsi for and 53.8 percent share of the expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick, while also holding a 62-50 advantage in shots. Sometimes Vasilevskiy is the difference, as was the case Wednesday night.
Vasilevskiy made 42 saves and kept the Lightning firmly in a contest where they were outplayed thoroughly. And with the considerable gulf in talent, as Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos are in a different tier than any Canadiens attacker, sometimes it feels almost unfair that they also have the world's best goaltender at their disposal, capable of bailing his team out on an off night.
"Just the absolute competitive gamer that we know he is," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said of Vasilevskiy after Game 2. "Night in and night out the backbone of this team. Can't say enough good things about him. We certainly want to make it a little bit easier of a night than we had to for him, but man he's an absolute warrior and competitor and obviously was probably the biggest piece of our win here tonight."
This series was often billed as a matchup between the NHL's two best goaltenders, and though he's in top form, that feels a bit revisionist and charitable toward Price as Vasilevskiy is in a separate tier at the moment. He posted a sparkling .925 save percentage during the regular season, a 2.21 GAA, and a 20.96 goals saved above average (GSAA), which considers how many goals a goalie has saved cumulatively, taking into account the league average save percentage on an equal number of shots. Price wasn't in the same ballpark during the condensed campaign.
A sizeable gap still exists between Vasilevskiy and Price during the postseason too, even though Montreal's iconic goalie is the primary reason why it's here on the grandest stage.
Vasilevskiy ranks first in GSAA by a whopping margin, high-danger saves, saves in all situations, second in GAA (1.68, trailing only Toronto's Jack Campbell's 1.55 mark) and third in save percentage with a jaw-dropping .944 mark at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. Price, for comparison, ranks first in shots against, second in high-danger saves, second in saves across all situations, 12th in GAA, and 18th in GSAA. Price has been by any measure the defining part of the Canadiens' playoff run, but he's not on equal footing.
And yet, you have to account for the caliber of opponent. Vasilevskiy plays behind a superior team, at least on paper and by conventional wisdom. It feels almost unfair. But as evidenced in Game 2, sometimes Vasilevskiy is the difference for the Lightning, and that must be demoralizing to the Canadiens, who squeezed every ounce of production out of their resilient team, yet are two games away from being swept out of the Final.
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