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For Lightning, NHL playoffs could be Ben Bishop or bust

Some memories never leave you. • For goaltender Ben Bishop, it was sitting in his locker stall June 15 at the United Center, a towel draped around his neck, listening to the Blackhawks celebrate their Stanley Cup victory over the Lightning. Queen's We are the Champions played. The Cup, a late arrival, had to be wheeled by a somber Lightning dressing room on its way to the party. It made Bishop sick. • "You remember all of it," Bishop said. "You try not to." • Bishop thought maybe if he hadn't torn his groin earlier in the series, or Tyler Johnson hadn't broken his wrist, Tampa Bay might have been the one hoisting the Cup. • "We want to experience the right side of it," he said.

And if the Lightning has any chance of doing that, it'll largely fall on the shoulders of the 6-foot-7 Bishop, starting with tonight's first-round opener with the Red Wings at Amalie Arena.

Teammates have called Bishop their MVP, their backbone all season, and that was with defenseman Anton Stralman and captain Steven Stamkos healthy. Bishop was one of the only constants in a season of inconsistency, bailing out a less-potent offense and the 28th-ranked power play. When news of Stamkos' blood clot and 1-3 month recovery time came out April 2, general manager Steve Yzerman said if Bishop and backup Andrei Vasilevskiy have to "stand on their head every night, that's what they're going to have to do."

And Yzerman wasn't joking. It could be Bishop or bust.

"That's where Ben comes in," NBCSN analyst Pierre McGuire said. "Goaltending matters a ton. Ben is going to have to elevate, there's no question, he's the great equalizer."

Just getting the same Bishop performance from this Vezina Trophy-caliber season would be a boost as his 2.06 goals-against average leads the league. But Bishop feels more comfortable and confident heading into his second postseason, drawing from his 2.08 GAA in 25 playoff games last year, including two Game 7 shutouts.

"You're not going to get any more pressure situation than that, unless you're playing in the Olympics in overtime," Bishop said. "You're not going to get more pressure than Game 7 to go to the Stanley Cup. It's an experience thing, you have it in your repertoire, you can go back and lean on it."

•••

There was no significant shift in preparation or mechanics that sparked Bishop's career season.

He said he has had the same routine since he arrived at the 2013 trade deadline from Ottawa.

The success isn't a shock; Bishop was a Vezina finalist two years ago and this is his third consecutive season with 35-plus wins and 60-plus starts.

But he was driven from the start, not only for his team, but to earn a spot on the U.S. World Cup roster, which he did. And Bishop said Vasilevskiy pushed him to be better.

"You don't ever want to be content," Bishop said. "You see guys that are consistent, like (Henrik) Lundqvist, he's good year in year out. That's not because he signed a big contract. He's won gold medals, he's been to the finals, but he's still as competitive as he is. You want to be the best. Nobody wants the fear of being mediocre, you don't want to be mid-pack, you want to be the best at what you do."

What stood out this season for coach Jon Cooper was Bishop's "unreal consistency."

"You look back at his months, there hasn't been any dips," Cooper said. "There hasn't been the 'Oh wow, he had a tough December but he rebounded in January.' It was just really good, really good, really good, really good all the way across."

The Lightning badly needed it, dropping from first in scoring (3.16 goals a game) in 2014-15 to 12th (2.73), including scoring three combined goals during Bishop's five-start losing streak. Imagine how Bishop's 35-21-4 record would look had he not lost 11 starts when allowing two goals or fewer.

"He's bailed us out so many times," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said.

There was no greater example than a 3-0 shutout over the worst-in-the-league Maple Leafs on March 28, when Tampa Bay got outshot 34-18 and thoroughly outplayed. Bishop addressed the team after first intermission, an example of his growing leadership role, saying, "Wake up guys. It's embarrassing."

"He doesn't talk much," center Cedric Paquette said. "But when he does, everybody listens."

•••

Ask around the league what makes Bishop so good, and there are as many answers as dimensions to his game.

There's size, of course; at 6-7, 214 pounds he's the NHL's tallest goalie. Said Stars coach Lindy Ruff: "You've got to be a dead-eye shooter to score."

But Bishop is also athletic, using his frame well.

"He's so compact," said Devils goalie Cory Schneider, another Vezina candidate. "He's so big, but he's quick. He doesn't get caught out of the net too often. He uses his size, he stays in his crease and dares you to beat him."

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, a former goalie, said Cooper has told him Bishop has the highest hockey IQ on the team. Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said Bishop's work ethic "sets a standard" for the organization's goalies.

"It's his attention to detail," said Islanders coach Jack Capuano, a fellow University of Maine product and an assistant on the U.S. World Cup team. "Guys that are committed, they're going to have success, it's not the guys who try to take the shortcuts and don't worry about the little things. Ben never gets bored with the details."

Then there's Bishop's unique ability to play the puck, making him like a third defenseman. He'll fuel the Lightning's transition with a stretch pass, or snatch an opponent's dump-in off the glass. Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said Bishop is the most active goalie in the league, and that "gets into your head," impacting how teams forecheck and change lines.

"You don't see too many goalies have the confidence to do that," Pacioretty said.

•••

Bishop said he was way more nervous for Game 1 against Detroit last season, his NHL playoff debut, than either Game 7.

"I didn't know if it was because I didn't know what to expect, or thought it'd be a different game," Bishop said. "You hear about the playoffs, that it's a lot tougher, more intense. But it was really the exact same thing."

Bishop said that series was a turning point for him, as was quickly having to shake off some "goofy" goals, whether it was a shot bouncing in and out of his glove, or his own goal against Detroit.

Bishop points out he was a bounce or two away from having a much different postseason resume.

"We had that long run and we were one game from losing in the first round," he said. "I think we all realize that. You have to have some luck, have to have someone step up here and there to go far."

For the Lightning, it begins and ends with Bishop, who hopes this isn't his last run in Tampa. Yzerman has to make a decision as early as this summer on his future No. 1, whether it'd be Bishop, who has one year remaining on his deal, or Vasilevskiy.

"You'd be crazy to say you never thought about it," Bishop said. "But it's not something I stress myself out about. I definitely feel like a Lightning, as corny as it might sound. This is part of your team, this is part of your family. This is really all you know. Until something is different, your focus is going to be on this. And I definitely feel like this is my home, for the time being."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

For Lightning, NHL playoffs could be Ben Bishop or bust 04/12/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2016 9:59pm]
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