TAMPA, Fla. — Andrei Vasilevskiy is a not-so-secret key ingredient in the Tampa Bay Lightning's recipe for success in the playoffs.
The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy recipient won his fifth straight postseason game Sunday, stopping 34 of 35 shots to help the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions beat the Florida Panthers 5-1 and move to the brink of another trip to the Eastern Conference final.
“It all starts with him,” forward Nick Paul said after Vasilevskiy stood tall again in shutting down the high-scoring Panthers, who had the NHL's best record while averaging a league-high four goals per game during the regular season.
The Presidents' Trophy winners have three goals in three games against the Lightning, who have a commanding 3-0 series lead and are within one victory of advancing to the conference final for the sixth time in eight years.
“There's a whole ton of things that go into it,” coach Jon Cooper said of Tampa Bay's defensive effort.
“But we’re committed to play D, and I think it’s helped in some of these times that we’ve had the lead. ... But we have a plan, and the guys are executing and playing hard, ” Cooper added. “We feel like we’ve got a recipe going here, and we just have to stick with it. It's hard, though, because they’re a hell of a team.”
Steven Stamkos scored two goals and Nikita Kucherov had a goal and three assists for the Lightning, who are in the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons under Cooper.
Game 4 is Monday night at Amalie Arena, where Tampa Bay has won three of four games this postseason.
“We're pleased with what’s going on here. But you know, we haven’t done anything yet," Cooper said. “Until you start checking off that fourth win, there’s nothing we can sit and hang our hat on. We’re inching our way closer, but this is far from over.”
Corey Perry got the Lightning off to a strong start with his 50th career playoff goal and Erik Cernak also scored.
Vasilevskiy, meanwhile, allowed just one goal for the fourth straight game after allowing at least three in each of Tampa Bay’s first six games this postseason.
The 6-foot-3 goaltender, nicknamed “Big Cat,” was helped again Sunday by teammates who combined to block 19 shots.
“We’re down 3-0, so obviously we're not happy with the results," Panthers star Jonathan Huberdeau said.
“But we’re playing probably the best goalie. He’s making some saves. We’re having chances. We’re not getting bounces, too, right now,” Huberdeau added. “Credit to them, too, they’re blocking every shot. They’re a good team. You can see why they won two Stanley Cups.”
Sam Reinhart scored Florida’s lone goal Sunday, snapping a puzzling 0-for-25 start to the playoffs for the Panthers’ power play.
Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 31 of 34 shots, with Perry and Cernak both scoring only moments after Florida killed off penalties in the first and second periods. Stamkos’ one-timer off a pass from Kucherov made it 3-1 midway through the second.
Kucherov and Stamkos added empty-net goals in the final four minutes after the Panthers removed Bobrovsky in favor of an extra attacker.
“The expectation coming into every game is to win," Stamkos said, looking ahead to Game 4. "But we realize the challenge ahead.”
Perry, who signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent after being part of teams that lost to the Lightning in each of the past two Stanley Cup Finals, re-directed Ryan McDonagh’s shot past Bobrovsky to give the defending champs an early lead.
The Panthers, 0-for-25 on the power play through their first nine playoff games, finally broke through to tie it 1-all with Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov setting up Reinhart to beat Vasilevskiy from in front of the net.
Ultimately, though, Florida paid for its inability to capitalize on other opportunities.
Barkov just missed answering Cernak’s goal that put the Lightning ahead 2-1, sending a shot from the right circle off the post. The Panthers also narrowly missed pulling even during a second-period power play that produced several chances, including Huberdeau’s wide-open look that McDonagh deflected up over the net with his stick.
Florida finished 1-for-3, dropping to 1-for-28 in man-advantage situations this postseason.
“Not a lot of puck luck, and lots of credit to them," Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said.
“We fall behind, they’re a tough team to come back on. We kind of fell behind here this whole series and we haven’t found that extra gear from behind, which we found all year,” Brunette added. "But you have to play one game to bring it home and keep it alive.”