TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The highest-scoring team in the NHL is playing a stingy brand of defense in the playoffs.
Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning know ultimately that will be the key to the chances for a deep run for the third time in four years.
The top seed in the Eastern Conference won its opening round series 4-1 over the New Jersey Devils, with Vasilevskiy stopping 53 of 55 shots over the last two games.
“We did a good job. They’re a good team, but we were better a little bit,” the 23-year-old goaltender said after Saturday’s 3-1 clinching victory.
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“The guys played well,” Vasilevskiy said. “When your team is playing well, I’m feeling much better, more confidence. … “Now it’s in the past and we have to move on and think about the second round.”
Nikita Kucherov scored goals in four of the five games, including three game-winners.
With five goals and five assists, he set a franchise record for points in a playoff series and also tied Vincent Lecavalier for second place on the Tampa Bay’s postseason scoring list with 52 points in 50 games.
But as well as the league’s third-leading scorer and the rest of the offense performed over the course of the series, the defense was just as good after struggling at times over the last two months of the season.
The Devils scored seven goals in the four games they lost. Before yielding one goal in each of the final two games, Vasilevskiy had never allowed one or fewer goals in a playoff start.
“He’s been unbelievable. He’s so young, but it seems like he’s been in the league for 20 years,” Kucherov said. “When he makes the saves, it gives energy to our group and the bench, everyone is fired up.”
In his first season as a No. 1 goalie, the finalist for the Vezina Trophy tied for first in the NHL in victories (44) and shutouts (eight) and finished with a 2.62 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
Those numbers might have been even better if the Lightning had played better defense in front of him over the last half of the season.
“He was on it from Game 1,” coach Jon Cooper said of the young goaltender’s performance against the Devils.
“He just came up huge in every big situation. … The timely saves were phenomenal for us,” Cooper added. “He just played with confidence.”
And, that gives the Lightning reason to feel good heading into the Eastern Conference semifinals against the winner of the first-round matchup between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs.
“We don’t care who’s going to be there. There’s no easy teams in the playoffs,” Kucherov said. “We have to make sure we play the same way and we play our way.”
Cooper appreciates being able to close out the Devils early, avoiding a return trip to Newark, New Jersey, for Game 6.
“Ultimately, you just don’t want to get on the plane, again. It’s not that there’s still series left, but it’s the wear and tear on the body and mind,” Cooper said. “I’m not one of those, let the series go seven and just keep playing. We’ll take the rest, take a step back and prepare.”
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