Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper is adamant he wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t know who would be his starter for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final. He admits he may have held back information but, heading into Game 5, he says he’s still not sure about Ben Bishop’s status.
“Okay, I'll be truthful in this scenario,” Cooper said following practice Friday. “This is regarding Ben Bishop or all injuries. I don't know sitting here today if Ben Bishop is playing on Saturday. I hope he plays. I don't know if he's going to. He's got to get back on the ice. If he's not in the pregame skate tomorrow, that's a pretty good indication of whether he's going to play or not.”
That’s not the only time Cooper said the morning skate could help decide who the starting netminder will be for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, either. In talking about Bishop’s injury, the choice not to play him in Game 4 and start rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy instead, Cooper said it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision but something the team discussed amongst themselves and with Bishop.
“When we made the decision not to play him the other night, the decision just wasn't made, ‘Oh, we're not going to play him,’ ” Cooper said. “It's, ‘We're not playing you and you're taking the next three days off.’ This was all in the plan.”
The uncertainty surrounding the crease for the Lightning has been the biggest storyline in a series where the on-ice action has been much closer than either team would probably like. Every game of the series, which is tied 2-2 with Game 5 slated for tomorrow evening in Tampa Bay, has been decided by one goal.
Regardless of who is starting for the Lightning come Saturday night, though, if Cooper’s club continues to stifle the Blackhawks offense the way they have through four games, it might not matter. In Game 4 especially, Chicago looked lost offensively, barely able to complete a clean exit out of their own zone and struggling at times to produce anything even close to resembling a scoring chance. Truthfully, each of the Blackhawks goals – both of which came off of bouncing pucks around the crease – were atypical of a Chicago squad that is usually praised for its incredible finesse.
What has been working in the Lightning’s favor is their speed game on offense and incredibly sound defensive play that has protected their own net. Repeatedly, the Tampa Bay offense is able to get Chicago defensemen to turn and chase the puck into the corners. With the blueliners turned, Lightning forecheckers have been able to force turnovers and cause chaos in the Blackhawks zone. And, when moving through the neutral zone, the number of times Chicago has been forced to turn back to regroup on a broken breakout is almost impossible to count. To watch the Blackhawks struggle in such a way is a rarity and something that has been overlooked due to the Lightning’s goaltending situation.
So, the mysteries in this series are twofold. First, what, exactly, is ailing Bishop and will the Lightning’s starting goaltender be able to go in the first game of what has now become a best-of-three series for the Stanley Cup? And, for Chicago, is there any way to figure out the Tampa Bay defensive structure and breakout offensively?
The series itself has been one of the most watched in the past decade and with good reason – when the games in this series have been flowing, they’ve been spectacular in that edge-of-your-seat, chewing-your-nails fashion. But, incredibly, through four games there are far more questions than there are answers. And, no matter how many times he’s asked, when it comes to Bishop’s status, not even Cooper has the solutions.
“I'm a pretty truthful guy,” Cooper said. “I kind of call it how it is. I don't feel like I've lied to anybody. I've maybe not, I don't know, said a lot of things, or I've kept them inside. But what's the point, eh? What's the point of lying? Truth is going to come out anyway, so you might as well tell it when you can.”