Vasilevskiy stands tall as Lightning advance past Panthers

The Tampa Bay Lightning know they count on Andrei Vasilevskiy.

With one of the NHL’s top goaltenders leading the way, the defending Stanley Cup champions are looking like a team determined to keep the crown after eliminating the Florida Panthers from the first round of the playoffs in six games.

Vasilevskiy stopped 29 shots en route to his second career playoff shutout Wednesday night, a 4-0 victory finishing the first-ever postseason series between intrastate foes who have never had much of a rivalry until now.

“That was our best effort by far in the playoffs, in the biggest game we’ve played so far,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “That’s what experienced teams do in those situations. They step up when it’s time to step up.”

Pat Maroon, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn scored for the Lightning, who will face Carolina or Nashville in the next round in the Central Division.

Vasilevskiy led the NHL in victories for a goaltender for the fourth straight season. His teammates never doubted he’d respond with a stellar performance after the Panthers staved off elimination with a 3-1 victory in Game 5.

“He hates to lose, and he especially hates to lose back-to-back games. … He’s the best goalie in the league by a long shot,” Maroon said.

Nikita Kucherov had two more assists to finish with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in six games after missing the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery performed in December. Stamkos had a strong series with three goals and five assists after sitting out 16 games with an injury.

“I’m not impressed any more. It’s just how good he is,” Maroon said of Kucherov, who has points in 10 in his past 11 playoff games.

“He works so hard at his craft and what he does. … I’m not surprised by his performance,” Maroon added. “He’s an unbelievable player. He’s an elite player. … We’re so happy to have him back. He’s a guy who kind of drives the bus.”

The Lightning improved to 11-0 after holding a 3-1 lead in a series. The reigning champs improved to 9-0 in games following a loss the past two postseasons.

“We came in confident. We know how to win in these situations,” Stamkos said. “We fed off an amazing crowd, and we got the job done. It was almost a clinical game in terms of executing the game plan. It was fun to be part of.”

And, a delight to watch from a coach’s standpoint.

“We had a plan set. … It was 60 minutes of just will and compete. To win in this league, that’s what you need,” Jon Cooper said.

“When you make the playoffs, you need it from everybody. The players gave it. They get all the credit in the world,” Cooper said. “To close a team out, especially one as talented and well-coached as Florida was, you don’t want to risk going to Game 7. That’s a hell of a team over there, but the boys played like champions.”

Now, it’s on to the next round.

The Lightning went 4-3-1 against Carolina during the regular season. They were 6-2 against Nashville.

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