TAMPA — The Lightning is in trouble, still fighting to climb its way into playoff position at 14-12-3 despite boasting a goaltender with the league's best goals against average.
"Can you imagine if he wasn't?" coach Jon Cooper asked Friday of Ben Bishop. "Probably be a little nerve-wracking."
The offensively challenged Lightning might be in the league's basement if not for Bishop, 29, perhaps playing the best hockey of his career.
"He's been our most consistent player — by far," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "Hasn't had a bad game yet."
Bishop's 1.95 goals-against average is tied for the NHL lead with Washington's Braden Holtby heading into tonight's matchup with the high-powered Capitals.
"Ben is trending to that upper echelon," said CBC analyst Darren Pang, a former NHL goalie. "I think he has all the makings of a guy that can win a Vezina Trophy (as the league's top goalie), he's got all the makings of a guy who can win a Stanley Cup. Win the Stanley Cup and you'll be in there as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate.
"I think you can feel a confidence that team has in him. He doesn't go away. Some guys just fade away; they don't come back. But he doesn't do that."
Bishop, a Vezina finalist in 2014, picked up where he left off during the playoffs last season, when he had two Game 7 shutouts on the way to the Cup final. He said it's just a continued progression in his third full season as starter and credits the defense, which he calls "the best in the league.
"I don't think there's anything different, I don't feel any different," Bishop said. "I just feel like I've been getting better as the years have gone on."
Touted prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy is thought to be the Lightning's future No. 1, with speculation the team might eventually trade Bishop, who carries a $5.9 million cap hit through next season.
But giving up an established No. 1, never mind one of the best goalies in the league, won't be easy. And Bishop doesn't appear ready to give up the net to Vasilevskiy, who is playing in AHL Syracuse this weekend as the Lightning rides its hot hand. Bishop has been through it — with both the Blues and Senators he was the backup many believed would take over.
"You don't think about it," Bishop said. "…Vasy is going to be a great goalie, but he's still really young. He still needs to grow and learn the game. I think he'll do that. But right now, that's not really my focus."
The mental maturation is where Cooper and Bishop admit he has had the most growth. Bishop said that even keel has helped him when the team scored just three combined goals during his five-game losing streak as he allowed eight. The Lightning ranks 25th in scoring at 2.38 goals a game, averaging 1.7 in Bishop's 10 losses (eight in regulation).
"There will be ups and downs, but don't be too hard on yourself or high on yourself when things are going well," Bishop said. "That's the biggest thing I've learned is not ride the roller-coaster, keep it simple."
The Lightning points to its No. 3 ranking in goals against (2.21) but let's not kid ourselves, Bishop is the key reason, often bailing his team out while playing 23 of the 29 games. Take Thursday's 4-1 win over Ottawa. "In the first period, we were (awful)," Stralman said. "And he stood tall.
Stralman said Bishop reminds him of Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist, his former teammate with the Rangers.
"He definitely has that mental edge to his game when needed the most, he's usually the best," Stralman said. "That's very similar to Hank. The bigger the challenge, the bigger his response is. He's a top-notch player."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.