TAMPA — This could be bad. Real bad. Like season-is-over bad.
The playoffs haven't even started and already it feels as if the Lightning is on the brink of elimination.
That's how it feels when you see starting goalie Ben Bishop gingerly skating off the ice. That's how it feels when you learn Bishop is out with what his agent says is an elbow injury.
He might miss a week, maybe two, maybe more. The Lightning isn't exactly sure. He might miss just long enough for the team to get bounced out of the first round of the playoffs.
Reaching for a floating puck Tuesday night against the Maple Leafs, Bishop crashed to the ice, and the Lightning's Stanley Cup hopes just might have crashed with him. The original diagnosis: the always vague "upper body" injury. The prognosis for Tampa Bay while Bishop is out: a very definite not-so-good.
The Lightning seemed like a long shot to go very deep in the playoffs to begin with. It is still young, still a little green, still lacking that special something playoff experience gives you. But Bishop gave the Lightning hope.
As long as Bishop is out, it feels rather hopeless.
The Lightning has overcome so much adversity this season. There was the injury to Steven Stamkos. There was the trade of Marty St. Louis. The Lightning not only has survived, but thrived.
Losing Bishop, however, would be too much. This would seem like a mountain simply too steep to climb.
Bishop's injury and its impact on the Lightning is way worse than the broken leg that knocked Stamkos out for 45 games. Stamkos might be one of the best players in the NHL, but Bishop has been the Lightning's best player this season.
The Lightning has won 43 games. Bishop has been in goal for 37 of them.
In most of those 37 victories, Bishop was the reason for the outcome. The Lightning could be outshot, outchanced, outworked and outplayed, but Bishop would find a way to brilliantly backstop the team to victory.
He was the reason the Lightning was able to withstand the injury to Stamkos. He was the reason the Lightning made its final push into the playoffs without St. Louis.
His injury is the reason the Lightning's playoff chances have just been put on life support.
For now, Plan B is Anders Lindback, who has been consistently inconsistent this season. Going into Tuesday, he was 5-12-2. His goals-against average was a much-too-high 3.26, and his save percentage was a much-too-low .878.
In 20 games before Tuesday, Lindback had allowed three goals or more 13 times. He had allowed fewer than two goals only once. That kind of goaltending not only gets you beaten in the playoffs, it gets you swept.
Can Lindback suddenly find his game and play better than he has at any point this season — at any point in his career?
There's no reason to believe so, other than Tuesday's shutout in relief of Bishop against a foundering Leafs team that was eliminated from the playoffs with the loss.
Two years ago, Lindback was brought in to be the Lightning's No. 1 goalie. But there has been nothing in his two seasons with the team to suggest he can put a team on his back the way Nikolai Khabibulin did in 2004 or Dwayne Roloson did in 2011.
He has been so shaky at times this season that you can't help but wonder if the Lightning would be tempted to turn to Kristers Gudlevskis. He is the 21-year-old kid who nearly led Latvia over mighty Canada in the Olympics.
Hey, when you're looking for a miracle, you have to be willing to look anywhere and to anyone.
Very few teams can win regularly, particularly this time of year, without their No. 1 goalie. For a team that relies on its No. 1 goalie as much as the Lightning does, expecting four victories in a seven-game series with its No. 2 goalie is unrealistic.
Lindback cannot be expected to turn into Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy overnight. He can't even be expected to turn into Bishop, especially after playing only four times in the past two months. Perhaps playing more regularly now will improve Lindback's game.
In the meantime, the Lightning needs to change something.
It doesn't have the scoring punch to get into run-and-gun, pond-hockey shootouts to win games. Besides, that style isn't going to fly in the tight-checking playoffs.
That means the Lightning must clamp down and button up to give Lindback as much help and protection as possible. Forget two-way hockey. Try one-way hockey, with the one way being all-out defense. Put five guys around Lindback and hope for the best.
And while the Lightning is in the business of hoping, maybe it should hope and wish and pray for Bishop to have a speedy recovery before the season comes to an end.
The longer Bishop is out, the quicker that end will come.
Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8544 and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620.