Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Bolts lose their rock — goalie Ben Bishop (w/video)

PITTSBURGH

He has been the savior, the rock, the team's most valuable player.

Goalie Ben Bishop has lifted the Lightning on his hulking 6-foot-7 frame and carried it to the doorstep of a Stanley Cup. He is the single biggest reason it almost won it all last year and is the biggest reason it had any chance to win it this season.

Through the first 13 minutes of Friday night's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, Bishop put on his usual splendid display, showing precisely why he is one of the best goalies in the NHL.

Pad saves. Stick saves. Glove saves.

He was a wall.

But then, as sudden and calamitous as a bolt of lightning, the wall came tumbling down. And so, too, might have the Lightning's Stanley Cup dreams.

It was as heartbreaking as it was grotesque. It was as devastating as it was stunning. And this wicked turn of events just might have sabotaged the Stanley Cup from making Tampa Bay its summer vacation home.

With 7:35 left in the first period of Friday's game in Pittsburgh, Bishop landed awkwardly on his left leg while scrambling to keep yet another puck out of the net. As he writhed on the ice, the team's medical staff rushed to his side. Bishop was lifted onto a stretcher and slowly glided off the ice.

"You see a guy go out on a stretcher,'' Lightning forward Ondrej Palat said, "and that's tough to watch.''

As Bishop left the ice, you couldn't help but wonder if he was taking Tampa Bay's Cup chances with him. X-rays came back negative, but there is no word on when or if Bishop will play again this season.

"We're hoping for the best,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Frankly, it's hard to imagine the Lightning winning a Cup without Bishop, one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top goalie. The team will now turn to highly regarded, but still rather raw 21-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy.

"You never wants to lose Bish,'' Cooper said, "but nobody on the bench was thinking, 'Oh, we're nervous; Vasilevskiy is going in.' ''

Not to say the Lightning can't win with this Russian kid, considered a sure-fire future No. 1 goalie. He won a Stanley Cup final game last year. He performed well Friday, allowing only one goal on 24 shots in Tampa Bay's resilient 3-1 victory. But asking Vasilevskiy to beat a highly skilled Penguins team three more times and then the best team in the West four times after that, especially after rarely playing the past month, might be too much to ask.

"If we had that kind of mentality, I don't think we would have come out and played the way we did,'' Lightning forward J.T. Brown said. "Obviously, Bish is a big part of this team and it stinks to see him go down.''

Because of that, your heart breaks. Not just for Bishop, but also for the Lightning. It just doesn't seem fair what the Lightning is being asked to overcome. It's one thing to get beat by a better team. It's quite another to have the rug pulled out from under you because of a freakish injury.

"Things happen in a game and it's really disappointing,'' Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "It's upsetting to see a guy on your team go down in obvious distress.''

Yes, injuries are a part of hockey and the Stanley Cup playoffs are as much about a battle of attrition as outplaying your opponent. But what the Lightning has had to deal with this spring has been downright cruel.

Bishop's injury is just the latest crushing blow to a team that has seen an avalanche of bad luck. First, it lost one of its best defensemen, Anton Stralman, to a fractured leg. Then, as the regular-season was winding to a close, the Lightning lost captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos to a rare blood clot. Neither star has played in these playoffs.

But the Lightning endured, getting contributions from practically everybody who wears a Lightning bolt on a sweater. However, if you had to pick one player most responsible for the Lightning's success, there is no doubt.

Ben Bishop.

He is why Tampa Bay made the playoffs. He is why it beat the Red Wings and Islanders in the first two rounds. And he's the reason why anyone gave the Lightning a puncher's chance to win the Cup. Overcoming injuries to Stamkos and Stralman are one thing. Overcoming this is another.

Is Bishop definitely done for the series? It didn't look good as he left the ice Friday night.

Does that mean the Lightning's Stanley Cup hopes are done, as well? As Bishop left the ice Friday night, it didn't look good.

   
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