Victorious Vasilevskiy: Goalie, Lightning advance

NHL

RALEIGH, N.C. — Andrei Vasilevskiy was at his best again with the Tampa Bay Lightning in position to close out a playoff series.

Throw in a couple of timely goals from Brayden Point and Ross Colton, and the reigning Stanley Cup champions are a step closer to playing for another title.

Vasilevskiy posted his third straight shutout in a series-clinching victory, helping the Lightning beat the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0 on Tuesday night to win the second-round series in five games.

Point’s power-play goal — which followed a huge save from Vasilevskiy — put Tampa Bay up in the second period, then Colton scored in the third. That was more than enough for Vasilevskiy, who finished with 29 saves and stumped the homesteading Hurricanes for the third time in as many series games at PNC Arena.

Tampa Bay is now 5-1 on the road in the playoffs, including taking a 2-0 series lead in the first round against Florida and then claiming all three in this series.

And the Lightning are now 8-3 overall this postseason, having dispatched the two teams that finished above them in the Central Division: First-place Carolina, and the second-place Florida Panthers, who fell to the champions in Round 1 in six games.

Indeed, the team that — as the No. 1 seed overall — lost in the first round in 2019 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, has now won six straight series dating back the postseason bubble last year.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our group,” Point said. “I thought we had a pretty good regular season where we were kind of building to this. … Yeah, it’s just a belief in our group. We’ve got four lines and all the D and great goaltending. So we just feel confident.”

It started with Vasilevskiy, a former Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goaltender and a finalist this year. He allowed just two goals on 70 shots through the first two games to open this series.

Then, after a wild Game 4 in Florida that saw each team score four second-period goals, Vasilevskiy turned away every shot. Among his saves Tuesday was a huge glove stop of a 2-on-1 short-handed chance by Carolina’s Vincent Trocheck.

Point’s goal came moments later on a gorgeous effort. He took a feed from Alex Killorn to his backhand side near the crease, went to his forehand before returning to the backhand to get Carolina netminder Alex Nedeljkovic off balance just enough to score at 4:06 of the second.

“They’re both two big-time players that made big-time plays,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the sequence.

The Lightning nearly pushed that lead to 2-0 with captain Steven Stamkos scoring a buzzer-beating goal, but a review determined the puck didn’t cross the goal line in time. But Colton made up for it at 9:04 of the third for the 2-0 lead.

The Hurricanes just couldn’t do the same.

“He made some big saves, timely saves,” Carolina captain Jordan Staal said of Vasilevskiy. “Good goaltenders do that. He did a good job of not letting us get some momentum and get the crowd into it.”

Next up for Tampa Bay in the NHL semifinals is the winner of the series between the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins. The Islanders lead that best-of-seven series 3-2 and can close it out Wednesday at home.

The Lightning defeated both of those teams last year in the playoff bubble, en route to the title.

It was a frustrating finish for the Hurricanes, who were in the playoffs for the third straight season after a nine-season drought. They won the Central Division title for their first division crown since winning the Cup in 2006, and were in the Presidents’ Trophy race until the final week of the season.

Carolina, with depth on defense and youth up front, appears to be in a position to contend for a title, but continues to struggle in the postseason. Last year, the Hurricanes lost to the Bruins in the first round.

“There’s a next step we’ve got to find,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “That’s what’s left.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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