Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop was not at his best in the early portion of the Lightning’s first-round series against Detroit. But the hulking netminder saved his best effort for when it counted most: in Game 7 Wednesday, when he stopped all 31 Wings shots he saw to lead the Bolts to a 2-1 win – and a date with the Canadiens in Round Two.
For the first six games of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first-round playoff series against Detroit, goaltender Ben Bishop was only in the news for the wrong reasons. The 28-year-old posted a save percentage of .900 or lower in two of the Bolts’ three losses and looked rattled far more than any netminder who’d just won 40 games in the regular season ought to. Given that Bishop had just a single game of professional experience in the playoffs prior to the start of the series, the odds of him coming through in the deciding game were not good, and Red Wings counterpart Petr Mrazek had outplayed him heading into Game 7. But that’s precisely what he did in stopping all 31 shots he saw to lead Tampa Bay to a 2-0 victory over the Red Wings Wednesday, and his team now moves on to face the Montreal Canadiens in the second round because of it.
The 6-foot-7-inch Denver native was injured prior to Tampa’s 2014 post-season, and he needed a statement game – not just to silence his critics for at least a few more days, but also to help out a Lightning offense that ranked first in the regular season at an average of 3.16 goals-for per-game, but only sixth in the post-season at 2.43 goals-for per-game. Once again, Bolts superstar Steven Stamkos failed to get on the scoresheet, finishing the first round with just three assists and appearing frustrated more than once in Game 7. Stamkos will still face enormous amounts of pressure in Round 2 – and a much tougher foe in Habs star goalie Carey Price – but at least he’ll have a clean slate.
The Canadiens weren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut in their opening-round showdown against Ottawa, finishing with the second-worst offense of any playoff team. But Habs head coach Michel Therrien will likely employ the same net-crashing strategy Wings coach Mike Babcock did against Bishop. And Bishop will have to be much more consistent, because Tampa Bay’s offense in its current state will not get much past Price.
Certainly, Babcock & the Red Wings had next to no chance to win Game 7 without the presence of veteran defensemen Niklas Kronwall (suspended for a head hit on Nikita Kucherov in Game 6) and injured trade deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky, and yet Detroit kept the game scoreless until 3:58 of the third period, when defensive defenseman Braydon Coburn scored only the third playoff goal of his career for the eventual game-winner. The Wings attempted to pour it on as time ran down, but this time, it was Bishop and the Bolts’ blueliners who clamped down and got in their lanes. Tampa blocked double the number of shots Detroit did (16 to 8) and got a pair of blocks from each of Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat and Stamkos. Their depth and talent outlasted that of the visiting team, and it might have taken seven full games for that depth and talent to emerge, but it did.
The elimination of the Wings triggered immediate speculation in regard to Babcock’s future with the team, but he quickly deflected it with typical Babcockian style:
DET coach Mike Babcock on his future in Detroit: “I'm not talking about that now.” Said he'd be happy to talk about that “crap” in few days
— Katie Strang (@KatieStrangESPN) April 30, 2015
Although there are undoubtedly some Red Wings fans who are terrified at a future without Babcock behind the bench, they should take comfort in the fact that, if Babcock doesn’t return to the organization, American League affiliate coach Jeff Blashill will step in and have an immediate relationship with Detroit’s young players he worked with at the developmental level. Either way, the Wings will be in very good hands next season.
But back to the Lightning, a.k.a. THN’s pre-playoffs pick to win the Stanley Cup. A first-round exit to the Wings would have been devastating after the Bolts went 50-24-8 in the regular season, but they were resilient at a crucial moment. They’re still a young team with its best years ahead, but many people believe they’re one of the few remaining teams in the East with the horses to run with the Rangers and challenge for a championship.
If Bishop can continue playing as well for them as he did in Game 7, the Lightning now have a glorious shot to beat an Original Six team and make it back to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2011.