Lightning stars shine, embrace the boos, during All-Star weekend
SUNRISE — It could have been a long afternoon for Andrei Vasilevskiy, but he came away from his fifth All-Star Game all smiles.
The home crowd at FLA Live Arena wasn’t necessarily hospitable, with the pro-Panthers contingency booing the Lightning goalie and teammate Nikita Kucherov during every mention of their names this weekend.
The Sunshine State rivalry apparently doesn’t take a day off, even in an exhibition format in which Panthers and Lightning players called each other teammates.
Vasilevskiy’s day began Saturday having to face Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the top players of this generation, coming at him in open ice on a 2-on-0 that, to be fair, should live only in a goaltender’s nightmares.
Welcome to the All-Star Game.
The tournament format of 3-on-3 games with two 10-minute periods yields more scoring than playing NHL ‘94 on the easy setting, so it’s more style than substance. But it’s still something even a goaltender can get behind.
“It was a pretty legit weekend,” Vasilevskiy said.
Vasilevskiy and Kucherov came out winners, as the Atlantic Division team beat Ovechkin and Crosby’s Metropolitan Division in the semifinals and the Central Division in the championship game. As winners, the 11 Atlantic players will divide $1 million in prize money among themselves.
Vasilevskiy learned quickly this wasn’t a normal Saturday in the league when his clear attempt on the 2-on-0 was intercepted by Crosby. With Ovechkin trailing, the two passed back and forth until Vasilevskiy committed to his left, leaving Crosby open for a goal that gave the Metropolitan the lead in their semifinal.
But even for Vasilevskiy, who hates to get scored on in any situation, it was a memorable moment. The two greats beat him again in the game, with Ovechkin scoring, but the Lightning goaltender enjoyed being part of history.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t do well in that situation, but I can’t complain,” he said. “When you’re a little guy and watching those guys on TV, it was always like some kind of rivalry between them. And now they’re playing together and they’re playing against you. So that’s amazing. You know, I’m glad they scored.”
Playing the second period of the semifinal after Boston’s Linus Ullmark started the game, Vasilevskiy allowed three goals in his first 2½ minutes of action, then found his footing with 10 saves, allowing for a 10-6 comeback win.
Kucherov scored the tying goal at 6 with 5:31 left, slowly skating in on Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin before flicking the puck through a tiny hole inside the near post.
“I was looking for a pass the whole time, but then I just got a little bit of room and decided to put it short side, but I got lucky,” Kucherov said.
Kucherov also scored in the Atlantic’s 7-5 final win — a wild game that included six goals in the final 76 seconds — redirecting in a pass put in front of the net by Toronto’s Mitch Marner past Nashville’s Juuse Saros.
“Just to see the best players, the skill competition, seeing what they’re best at, just be in the room, talk to them and, you know, just hang out, I think this was a fun couple days,” Kucherov said. “I really enjoyed it.”
Vasilevskiy made 11 second-period saves in the final. He was the winning goaltender in both games. Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk — who had four goals and seven points in the two games, including a hat trick in the semifinal — was the All-Star Game MVP.
The Lightning players may not have been popular with the hometown crowd, but they were popular in the Atlantic locker room. Players such as Bruins forward David Pastrnak were campaigning to play with Kucherov before the first semifinal.
“I actually asked to play with ‘Kuch,’ " said Pastrnak. “It didn’t work out well. We were both a little stiff, you know, after sitting around for a while. I think that’s why. We also were head-to-head against Crosby and Ovechkin, so that was tough. But definitely, he’s a player that I like. Kuch is a heck of a player, so I really wanted to play with him.”
After the game, players got their jerseys autographed by their teammates, who will be competitors again Monday as the break ends. The Lightning come out of the break with a game against the Panthers in Sunrise on Monday night.
“My favorite goalie in the league,” Pastrnak said about Vasilevskiy as he signed Vasilevskiy’s jersey.
“He’s my favorite No. 88,” Vasilevskiy responded, mentioning the number they both wear.
As for those boos, Vasilevskiy took them as a compliment.
“To me, it’s like they’re respecting me because I’ve done something right against them,” he said. “I’ll take it. I actually I appreciate that. So that’s fun. I wish every building was like this.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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