"Vasilevskiy, to me, he’s the best goalie in the NHL," a veteran observer of professional goaltending was saying early on Sunday evening. "He’s been the best goalie in the NHL the last couple of years. He’s outstanding.
"He’s also a great person, very humble guy. I like this kid."
Sure enough, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning was the Vezina Trophy winner in 2019, won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and is the Vezina favorite in 2021.
But just as surely, when he faced the Islanders in Game 1 of a Stanley Cup semifinal in Tampa on Sunday, something went awry, as it has for other goalies against the Islanders in these playoffs.
And the Islanders being the Islanders, the guy who outplayed him — and who said those nice things above — was the supposedly lesser goalie entering the series.
The one who did not even get named a Vezina finalist after leading the league with seven shutouts and allowing a mere 2.04 goals per game in the regular season.
That would be Semyon Varlamov, who did not yield a goal until the final minute of a 2-1 win, and then only when the Lightning were skating six-on-four and Brayden Point found a tiny window over his left shoulder.
Vasilevskiy, meanwhile, allowed two goals on seemingly more stoppable shots.
Mathew Barzal beat him for the game’s first score when the goalie appeared to anticipate a move to the backhand and Barzal cleverly shoved the puck between his legs.
Ryan Pulock beat him for the second on a long shot that did not appear to be bothered by a screen or deflection.
The Pulock goal came shortly after Varlamov had made a nice right pad save on Alex Killorn.
"Goaltending, it’s all about timely saves, and we’ve got two that have done that for us," coach Barry Trotz said. "Varly’s done that not only through the playoffs, but [he and Ilya Sorokin], they’ve done it all year for us."
Asked about Varlamov outdueling Vasilevskiy, Jordan Eberle said, "In our minds, Varly’s one of the best goalies in the league, so it’s no surprise.
"He’s been there all year for us, him and Soroky, so we try to limit the chances that we get against him. But when there is a chance, he’s been there all year for us. So, not a surprise."
Game 1 did not have the intensity of the second-round series against the Bruins, as the Islanders put a lid on Tampa Bay’s high-powered attack and the Lightning seemed disengaged until the frantic final minutes.
The challenge figures to get tougher from here, but Varlamov is not an easily rattled type. Trotz repeatedly has praised his low-maintenance personality and ability to go with the flow.
He has had a strange route through the playoffs so far, missing Game 1 against the Penguins with an injury — an Isles win — then returning to lose Games 2 and 3, then getting benched for Sorokin, then returning again for Game 2 against Boston.
He outplayed the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask, who was not fully healthy, in that series, just as Sorokin had outplayed Tristan Jarry against the Penguins.
Now it is Vasilevskiy’s turn to try to solve the pesky Islanders. Varlamov knows the Islanders will not overcome his counterpart easily.
Varlamov, 33, and Vasilevskiy, 26, were teammates for Russia in the 2016 World Cup. The latter was only 22, which is why Varlamov still calls him a kid. (Sergei Bobrovsky ended up starting for Russia in that event.) But Vasilevskiy is all grown up now.
"He’s a very big goalie, very athletic," Varlamov said. "Won the Cup last year, and the Vezina Trophy. What can I say? I can say a lot of great things about him."
Here is something we can say about Varlamov that we cannot about Vasilevskiy: He is seven victories from a Stanley Cup.