Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy tracking toward early return

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is progressing well from back surgery and eyeing an early return to the lineup.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper updated the media Monday on Vasilevskiy's condition, saying the rehab is going well and could put the netminder back in the crease by Thanksgiving.

That would track slightly ahead of Vasilevskiy's original recovery schedule. The 29-year-old was slated to miss eight to 10 weeks following his successful microdiscectomy on a lumbar herniation early last month. He was spotted on the ice again at Bolts' practice in late October and now, Cooper said, he'd be "disappointed if [Vasilevskiy's return] is in early December."

Having Vasilevskiy available again will undoubtedly boost the Bolts. The 2019 Vezina Trophy winner has been Tampa's backbone throughout a successful five-year run that included back-to-back Stanley Cup championships (the latter of which, in 2020-21, earned Vasilevskiy Conn Smythe Trophy honors) and another Cup Final appearance in 2021-22 in a losing effort against Colorado.

All that work eventually caught up to Vasilevskiy. Last season, his numbers (34-22-4 record, .915 SV%, 2.65 GAA) were below his usual high standard, and when the playoffs rolled around Vasilevskiy and the Lightning were ousted in a six-game first-round series against Toronto.

Vasilevskiy said after the fact his biggest mistake was to keep "pushing myself to the limit," which also likely played a role in his eventually needing surgery prior to this season getting underway.

"The first 30, 35 games felt as usual," Vasilevskiy said in the spring of his 2022-23 campaign. "But then just me and my body probably wasn't on the same page. All those small injuries came out at the same time. My mistake was that I didn't really pay attention to recovery."

While Vasilevskiy has been focused on his recovery this season, the Lightning have relied on Jonas Johansson to carry the load and he has done well, posting a 5-1-3 record with a .916 SV% and two shutouts. Matt Tomkins (0-2-0, .891 SV%) has been Johansson's backup.

Tampa takes on Toronto for the second time this season Monday night. The Lightning previously lost in overtime to the Maple Leafs at home in October.