By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
Bruce Cassidy watched from afar as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stoned Travis Zajac on a breakaway and knew that was the kind of save teams need in the playoffs.
One night later, the Boston coach saw up close how Tuukka Rask got his blocker on Mitch Marner’s breakaway attempt on the way to another Bruins victory.
“Every team needs goaltending,” Cassidy said. “On the road, you’re going to need a little extra at some point. We got it.”
The Bruins aren’t the only team getting great goaltending at crucial moments as the first round wraps up. While Rask has them up 3-1 on Toronto, Vasilevskiy is the biggest reason Tampa Bay has the New Jersey Devils on the brink of elimination and Braden Holtby has stabilized the Washington Capitals to tie their series against Columbus going into Game 5 Saturday (3 p.m. EDT, NBC/NBCSN).
After a high-scoring start to the Stanley Cup playoffs, netminders are making spectacular saves when called upon. A lot of the routine stops, too. Even though postseason scoring is up 7 percent from last year, Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury and San Jose’s Martin Jones combined to allow just seven goals in eight games – two four-game sweeps – to set up a second-round showdown. Rask and Vaslievskiy have each given up just nine through five games and Holtby has stopped 63 of 67 shots since replacing Philipp Grubauer in goal.
“Your job obviously every game as a goaltender is to limit bad goals,” Holtby said Friday. “Your goalie’s there to calm things down at the right minutes – make a big save here and there.”
Big saves are a bigger deal this time of year than volume, considering how many harmless shots are flicked at the net from long range. Sometimes those go in, like when Boston’s Torrey Krug floated a weak shot past Frederik Andersen in Game 4 Thursday night.
Few of those have happened in these playoffs against Rask, Holtby and Vasilevskiy, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, the NHL’s top goalie award. Rask’s 2.27 goals-against average and .926 save percentage are indicative of just how solid he has been in giving the Bruins a chance to close out the Maple Leafs on Saturday (8 p.m. EDT, NBC).
“He’s one of the best goalies in the world and gives us an opportunity to win every night,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand said of Rask, who won the Vezina in 2014.
Rask might be salty that he wasn’t one of the three Vezina finalists, finishing behind Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy, who get a postseason trip to the awards show in Las Vegas. Vasilevskiy earned it with a strong first half of the season, struggled late and is back in form with Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay able advance with a win Saturday (3 p.m. EDT, NBC/NBCSN).
Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t think Vasilevskiy played poorly in the final quarter of the regular season as much as his team’s defensive game sagged. That has changed against the Devils, though Vasilevskiy has bailed out Tampa Bay on a few occasions.
“When your team’s playing better defense it helps your goaltender out and he doesn’t have to make as many highlight-reel saves,” Cooper said. “I think what you’re seeing in the playoffs is a group that’s been determined to play both ends of the ice, and in turn that’s helping Vasilevskiy out.”
Game 4 Thursday was Holtby’s first time allowing fewer than two goals in a start since Nov. 18. But the 2016 Vezina winner insists he doesn’t feel any different than before his time off to reset his game in March.
He just looks like his old self.
“I think it’s got him to a place where he feels like Braden Holtby again, like he trusts his game, he trusts what he’s put in,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s focused on the right things and it’s allowed him to get to a place where I think he feels very comfortable.”
When Bruins star Patrice Bergeron’s streak of 104 consecutive playoff games ended because of an undisclosed injury, unheralded Riley Nash excelled centering the top line of Marchand and David Pastrnak in Game 4 in Toronto.
“He plays a two-way game,” Bruins center David Krejci said. “He’s got good skills as well, so he fit well on that line.”
Cassidy said a decision on Bergeron playing in Game 5 won’t come until Saturday. Toronto center Nazem Kadri will return from a three-game suspension for boarding Tommy Wingels.
Lightning winger Ryan Callahan is a game-time decision against the Devils, who are likely to be without top defenseman Sami Vatanen.
Columbus center Alexander Wennberg skated Friday and could return after missing three games after a hit to the head from Tom Wilson. Washington won’t have winger Andre Burakovsky for the rest of the series because of an upper-body injury that Trotz said requires “minor” surgery.
Without Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson earned the promotion to the Capitals’ top line and has thrived with significant ice time alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
“It’s something you only dream of,” Stephenson said. “Growing up watching them and then finally playing with them, it’s quite the special feeling.”
CLOSE THE DEAL
Going through a grueling run to the 2015 Cup Final taught Cooper a lesson about the benefits of finishing a team off in elimination games. The same goes for the banged-up Bruins because they’re on a crash course to face the Lightning in the second round.
“If you have a chance to win a series early, do it,” Cooper said. “Just to get the mental and physical rest, and then (have) all the other series go deep.”
AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen in Boston, Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.
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