Nick Goss

Why Vasilevskiy would be X-factor in a Bruins-Lightning playoff series

The Lightning goalie is a proven playoff performer.

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If the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs started today, the Boston Bruins would play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. The Lightning are precisely the kind of opponent that the Bruins, or anyone for that matter, don't want to see to begin the postseason.

While the Lightning are no longer the juggernaut we saw from 2020 through 2022 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final three consecutive seasons and won two championships, this is still a very talented, well-coached and experienced team.

The Lightning are also playing some of their best hockey of the season right now, and star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy among the reasons why. Tampa Bay is 8-1-1 in its last 10 games, which has helped it establish a six-point lead over the Washington Capitals for the first wild card playoff spot.

Vasilevskiy has been in net for nine of those games, and he has posted an impressive 7-1-1 record with a .909 save percentage and a 2.55 GAA. He was excellent Wednesday night when the Lightning beat the Bruins 3-1 at Amalie Arena. The 29-year-old netminder made 23 saves on 24 shots (.958 save percentage). Two weeks ago he made 47 saves on 50 shots (.940 save percentage) in a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers.

There's no question that Vasilevskiy, before this month, had been a disappointment this season. Since becoming the full-time starting goalie for the Lightning in 2015-16, he has never posted a save percentage below .915 in seven seasons. He's at .898 right now. His 2.90 GAA also would be the worst of his career so far.

If the Lightning get the Vasilevskiy of October through February in the playoffs, they likely will be eliminated in Round 1. But if the Vasilevskiy of March (or of postseasons past) comes to the 2024 playoffs, the Lightning will be a really tough out.

Vasilevskiy is a proven big-game player. He has a .921 playoff save percentage, a 2.37 playoff GAA and was a major contributor to the Lightning's Stanley Cup titles in 2020 and 2021. He was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2021.

Vasilevskiy would be the X-factor in a Bruins-Lightning playoff series.

If he plays like the Vasilevskiy we've often seen in the playoffs, the Bruins would be in trouble. The Bruins are a better defensive team than the Lightning. The B's are a higher-scoring team at even strength, too. Goaltending is where the Bruins could have a disadvantage in this matchup.

That position is the great unknown for the Bruins entering the playoffs. We don't even know who will be their starting goalie for Game 1. Both Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark have played average or worse for almost the entirety of their playoff careers. It's a small sample size, but neither goalie has shown the ability to be a difference-maker in a series. Vasilevskiy has done that many times in multiple championship runs.

Swayman has been a slightly better goalie than Ullmark over the course of the whole season, but he has a sub-.900 save percentage since the All-Star break. Ullmark has played better over that span, especially since the trade deadline passed.

A Bruins-Lightning playoff series would be highly entertaining and likely a long one. These teams know each other very well. Goaltending, as is the case in many postseason series, likely would be the biggest factor in the outcome. Vasilevskiy would hold the key to the series.

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