On a team as deep and as talented as the Tampa Bay Lightning, there wasn’t going to be much that could have slowed them down in their quest for the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. One concern, however, was the 6-foot-7 giant of a man in net for the Lightning: Ben Bishop.
While it may be hard to believe after the season Bishop has in 2013-14 when many considered one of the best goaltenders in the league, 2014-15 wasn’t exactly the kind of year that was cause for much jubilation about Bishop’s play. While on the surface his 2.32 goals-against average and .916 save percentage weren’t far cries from his 2.23 GAA and .924 SP last season, it was his play at 5-on-5 that was worrisome.
The key word there is “was.” Through nine post-season outings, Bishop’s play hasn’t hindered the Lightning at all. Truthfully, you could even say he might be the reason Tampa Bay is rolling the way they are.
Entering the post-season, there were few starting netminders who had posted worse 5-on-5 statistics than Bishop, and those who had were all situated in the Western Conference with all but Frederik Andersen (.919 SP at 5-on-5) on teams that were more outside contenders than true Stanley Cup hopefuls. In Game 1 of Tampa Bay’s first-round series against the Detroit Red Wings, it seemed Bishop’s regular season play could haunt the Lightning.
Coming into Game 1 with a 5-on-5 SP of .921, the lowest SP of Eastern Conference Game 1 starters, Bishop allowed three goals on 14 shots, a save percentage of just .786 as the Red Wings put the Lightning on the ropes early in the series. Over the next six games of the series, however, Bishop allowed only 10 goals and had a SP lower than .900 in just one outing.
In the series deciding Game 7, Bishop was undoubtedly the Lightning’s best player. He was peppered with shots throughout the game, but stopped all 31 shots on goal for a series-clinching shutout.
“What I think for Ben, and I look back on that Detroit series, it’s 3-3 and we hadn’t really needed him, if that makes any sense. We needed him obviously to win the three games, but the other guy was getting all the press,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told media following Game 7.
“Then you come into his biggest game of his career, the biggest game since I’ve been in here in our franchise the last couple of years, and for him to give the performance he did speaks miles for that kid. The spotlight didn’t have to be on him for six games, but when it was it shined the brightest and so did he, and that’s what’s impressive.”
So, how did Bishop follow up his Game 7 performance? By stopping 43 of 44 shots in a double overtime Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens as Tampa Bay did to the Habs what the Red Wings had done to the Lightning the round prior: stole Game 1 and home ice advantage.
If it wasn’t Bishop’s mediocre regular season statistics that gave people pause in selecting Tampa Bay, though, it was instead his lack of previous playoff experience. While he had been in the post-season before as a backup goaltender in the AHL, his grand total of professional post-season games played as a starting netminder was one. That’s right; just one game, four years ago, as a member of the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen. Even then, he allowed two goals on 19 shots for a .895 SP in a loss. Aside from his one start with Peoria, Bishop hadn’t even seen action in the AHL playoffs as a backup in relief duty.
Now, however, nine games into the playoffs, it’d be hard to imagine any other goaltender could have fared as well as Bishop has. Of goaltenders still alive in the post-season, not a single one has performed better than the Lightning netminder. In his nine games, his 5-on-5 SP is .947 and of the six goalies to face at least 170 shots these playoffs, he’s the only one to allow fewer than 10 goals.
Much of the storyline in the first round against Detroit was that Tampa Bay sniper Steven Stamkos’ offense had dried up. But even with Stamkos not scoring, Tyler Johnson made good on his opportunities and helped propel the Lightning into the second round. In Game 7 and through two games of Tampa Bay’s second-round matchup with Montreal, it’s been Bishop who has stepped up the most. Talk about a pleasant surprise.