PREVIEW: Andrei Vasilevskiy likely to return as Tampa Bay Lightning meet Predators again

By Field Level Media
Feb 8, 2021; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) works to get the puck against Nashville Predators left wing Erik Haula (56) and Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi (59) during the third period at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After starting arguably the NHL’s best goaltender for each of the season’s first nine games, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper knew he had an important issue at hand.

Andrei Vasilevskiy needed a night off, and he got one Monday when the Lightning beat the host Nashville Predators 4-1 for their fifth consecutive win. The teams meet again Tuesday in Nashville, and Vasilevskiy figures to back between the pipes.

Vasilevskiy, the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner, has been rock solid again for Cooper after guiding the Lightning to the franchise’s second Stanley Cup championship last season.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cooper had to lean on the 26-year-old Russian a little more than he expected. Backup Curtis McElhinney went on the COVID-19 protocol list Jan. 16 — just two games into the season — and came off two weeks later.

With his backup sidelined, Vasilevskiy hunkered down and started night after night for Tampa Bay, going 7-1-1 and posting sterling numbers — a 1.88 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. He has allowed two tallies or fewer in seven of his nine starts.

However, with Vasilevskiy having started 35 straight games dating back to last season, Cooper realized even the rigors of a truncated 56-game season would wear on his starting goalie eventually.

McElhinney, 37, started Monday for the first time since March 8, 2020, and he allowed only Dante Fabbro’s power-play goal while making 23 saves in the victory.

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That probably won’t be enough to get him another start Tuesday, though.

“We’ve got a plan for all these situations, and it doesn’t matter to me whether you play the front end or the back end,” Cooper before the Monday match. “You’re playing an NHL game, and you’ve got to be ready to play and so does our team.”

Cooper was pleased that McElhinney faced just six shots in the first period Monday.

“To have as little work as he had in the first, I think that was probably good for him,” Cooper said. “Mac was big for us.”

Like his Tampa Bay counterpart, Nashville coach John Hynes has had goaltending on his mind, too. His concern was over veteran Pekka Rinne, who played well last week as he helped his club split two games with the Panthers in Florida.

The 2018 Vezina winner, Rinne relieved Juuse Saros after Florida scored five Thursday, and Rinne promptly stopped all 12 shots he faced as his team rallied for a 6-5 overtime win.

Rinne, 38, returned Friday night and allowed just two goals on 36 shots, but his teammates received only a lone goal from Colton Sissons in a 2-1 loss.

“When you get good goaltending, it always brings energy to your team,” Hynes said after the Florida defeat. “But it’s not Peks’ job to get guys more consistent and get going.”

The Finnish goalie stopped 31 of 33 shots Monday but lost to Tampa Bay for only the second time in his career in regulation (9-2-2). The Lightning also beat him on Jan. 30 in Tampa.

On Monday, the Predators placed top center Ryan Johansen (upper body) on injured reserve, and Eeli Tolvanen, Mathieu Olivier and Michael McCarron all played after being recalled from the taxi squad.

Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm (birth of child) missed his first game this season and was replaced by Jarred Tinordi.

Read More: NHL roundup: Tampa Bay Lightning pound Predators, win 5th straight

–Field Level Media