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Canucks' playoff hopes could rest on goaltending — opposing goaltending

The Lightning starting Andrei Vasilevskiy on Sunday might be a sign that teams are no longer taking the Canucks lightly.
Andrei Vasilevskiy - Darryl Dyck CP
Andrei Vasilevskiy stole a win for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Vancouver Canucks.

An odd thing happened on Sunday night: the Vancouver Canucks got bodied by one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who stopped 35 of 36 shots to secure a one-goal win.

That’s not the odd part. Vasilevskiy has done that to a lot of teams over the years. At 27, he’s already one of the greatest goaltenders of all time, with two First-Team All-Star nods, a Vezina award, and a Conn Smythe trophy.

No, the odd part was that the Canucks were playing against Vasilevskiy in the first place.

The Lightning were playing their second game on back-to-back nights. When that happens, teams normally give their number one goaltender a rest on one of those nights, with their backup goaltender getting the start. Generally speaking, the backup will get the easier opponent and the number one gets the tougher opponent, as the team looks to maximize their chances of winning both games.

Typically this season, the Canucks have been judged to be the easier opponent. In their seven-game winning streak to kick off the Bruce Boudreau era, for instance, five of those seven wins came against backup goaltenders, with three of them on the second half of back-to-back games.

There’s no shame in that — you take the games you’re given and you win as many as you can. It’s just that teams haven’t hesitated to use their backup goaltender against the Canucks. Even more recently, when the Canucks were in New York at the end of February, they faced backup Alexandar Georgieve instead of Vezina frontrunner Igor Shesterkin, who started against the Pittsburgh Penguins the night before. 

But the Lightning starting Vasilevskiy against the Canucks suggests that other teams around the NHL might not take the Canucks so lightly anymore.

The night before, the Lightning faced the Edmonton Oilers, who are still ahead of the Canucks in the standings. Since the Oilers boast two of the most dangerous forwards in the NHL in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, it might have made sense to start Vasilevskiy in Edmonton.

Instead, backup goaltender Brian Elliott got the start against the Oilers in a 4-1 loss and the Lightning saved Vasilevskiy for the Canucks.

Honestly, it makes sense. Since the coaching change, the Canucks have been more dangerous than the Oilers. The Canucks have a 21-9-5 record since Boudreau took over. In that same timeframe, the Oilers have a 16-17-4 record. At this point, NHL teams should see the Canucks as the bigger threat.

If the Canucks do start to see more of the NHL’s top goaltenders down the stretch, that could prove to be a problem.

The league average for save percentage this season is .908. Under Boudreau, the Canucks have played 18 games against goaltenders with a save percentage at or below .908 and 17 games against goaltenders with a save percentage above .908.

Against average and below-average goaltenders, the Canucks have a 14-1-3 record. They’ve feasted on below-average goaltending, with their only regulation loss coming in their worst effort of the season — a 7-4 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

Against above-average goaltending, however, the Canucks haven’t fared as well, with a 7-8-2 record. 

Arguably, the only truly great goaltender they beat in that span is Jacob Markstrom, in the 7-1 win over the Calgary Flames that was easily their best effort of the season. 

On the one hand, it’s not too surprising that the Canucks have done better against worse goaltenders and vice versa. That’s pretty normal. There are two issues, however. One is that the Canucks have done worse against above-average goaltenders than the average NHL team. 

The other issue is that the Canucks are still in a hole when it comes to pushing to make the playoffs. They can’t afford to lose too many games like they did on Sunday, which was a winnable game if not for Vasilevskiy’s heroics.

If the Canucks face fewer backups and more above-average starting goaltenders down the stretch, that could spell trouble for their playoff hopes.

The Canucks have made a habit of riding great goaltending under Bruce Boudreau. Thatcher Demko has a fantastic .922 save percentage since Boudreau took over, stealing multiple games.

It’s a lot less fun being on the other side.

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