Vasilevskiy, Lightning Start 2018 Right In Defeat of Leafs

The Lightning goaltender notched his sixth shutout of the season

There is no such thing as a small hockey game in Toronto. This is especially true of the Maple Leafs now that they have Auston Matthews, and a team that shows signs of being able to compete come springtime. These days, Matthews and his Leafs are likely to be playoff-bound with a talented and young roster. That is balanced against the hopes and dreams of the fans of the team from the biggest city in Canada, currently working on a championship drought of over a half century.

With the Tampa Bay Lightning leading the NHL in just about everything that matters, their arrival in the Air Canada Centre was a true test for both the hopeful Lightning and the promising Leafs.

Toronto gave it their all in the contest, firing 29 shots in on net, including a point-blank offering that was so close the referees stopped play to make sure it didn’t go in. Matthews had his share of looks at the net, as did promising center Nazem Kadri. With the crowd not disappointing, the Leafs played like a team that would normally get a good result.

Problematically for Toronto, Andrei Vasilevskiy made all 29 saves that came his way, shut out the Leafs, and took the game’s first star in a 2-0 Tampa Bay victory.

Tampa Bay Lightning
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

The Lightning get their first win of 2018, and in doing so build on their NHL lead in points. They have the league leader in individual points in Nikita Kucherov, who also leads the NHL in goals. He’s sixth in assists, one behind teammate Steven Stamkos.

Netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, in his first full season as a starter, leads the NHL in Goals Allowed Average (2.02), Wins (25,) and Save Percentage (.935).

This is all good, but it’s also all still January in a season where the important trophy is handed out in June There is a long way to go Expectations, however, could not be higher for the Lightning at this point. With top scorers, a top goaltender, and a roster deep enough to be competitive on each line, the Lightning have the look of Stanley Cup Favorites.

On nights like Tuesday, that also comes with having a big target on their backs. Knowing that Leaf critics and sycophants alike would be watching closely, Toronto seemed to play with the intensity of a playoff game, something that can be unsettling for a team on the second game of a road trip.

Jon Cooper’s Lightning didn’t back down from the challenge, matching the team that started the night as their closest division competitor blow for blow in a tough and tight 0-0 first period. Given enough time and a lot of help from Vasilevskiy, the Lightning broke through twice in the second period and never looked back. Yet, with the margin only 2-0, the game wound up being one of the most entertaining of the NHL season to this point.

Shots were nearly even in the first and third periods. Vasilevskiy proved the difference, making some spectacular saves among his 29 on the night. One such save saw him sprawl to his right on a bouncing puck near the goal, saving a point-blank shot with his skate.

The Lightning have often been at their best this season when facing top competition such as Toronto, Washington, St Louis, Winnipeg, or the upstart Vegas Golden Knights. The Lightning are 6-2-1 in games against those teams to this point in the season, including shutouts against Toronto and St Louis, both on the road. It’s a positive sign of course to be able to go into a good team’s home arena and win.

Given the NHL’s playoff structure, the Maple Leafs are a team with whom Lightning fans should get very familiar. The Bolts and Leafs will play three more times this regular season, and could easily meet again in the playoffs. Since, again, the Leafs lead the NHL in the championship drought category, the atmosphere around Toronto’s team is likely to get crazier and crazier as the season goes on. They are likely hockey’s loudest team, and the noise will swell.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Teuvo Teravainen (86) battles Tampa Bay Lightning’s Mikhail Sergachev (98) for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

This was the first of a three-leg trip through Canada’s Eastern Conference teams. On Thursday, the Lightning head to Montreal to play the storied Montreal Canadiens. Les Habitants (“the Montreal People Who Live In Montreal” if you will) have had quite the up and down season to this point, tallying just 36 points despite the constantly high expectations they have simply for wearing Montreal Canadiens sweaters.

It will be Montreal’s first look at Mikhail Sergachev, the talented young defenseman they traded away for Jonathan Drouin. Sergachev has become a critical defenseman already for the Lightning, while, 22 year old Drouin has tallied just 18 points for Montreal thus far. It is of course too early to judge a swap of very young players who fill different needs for their respective new teams, but the early returns have looked fantastic for the Lightning and not so much for Montreal. The Lightning will get a chance to build on their 8-2 record within their own Atlantic Division and three game division win streak.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.