Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: After thinking the worst, Ben Bishop could return to East final (w/video)

PITTSBURGH — Lightning goalie Ben Bishop twisted back into his goal crease to make a save, just like he has done a million times in his life, and it just happened.

Snap.

He had never felt anything like that before in his life.

"I thought somebody slashed my leg."

Then he thought the worst. He was afraid to look down.

"You think the bone is sticking out of your leg," Bishop said.

There he was Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, describing the pain, the terror, the anxiety that had happened less than 48 hours earlier. Friday night, he was carted off the ice on a stretcher in tears — partly because of the pain but mostly because of what the pain meant.

In his mind — and to everyone who watched the frightening scene — his season: over. His career: on hold. His future, long term and short: very much in doubt.

"When I first saw (what happened) in (the) studio, my first thought was it was an MCL sprain," NHL Network analyst and former Lightning goalie Kevin Weekes said. "(Through our microphones on the ice) we could hear him screaming."

That's why it was so incredible to see Bishop on Sunday, walking without the aid of crutches or even with a limp, talking about playing again. Maybe even tonight in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins.

"Just take it day by day right now," Bishop said. "(It) feels better than it did (Saturday), and it's just a matter of getting to where it feels good enough to think you can go out there and help the team win."

It still seems unlikely that he plays in Game 2. Then again, after watching him Sunday, anything seems possible.

Still, why risk it?

Not that any game in a best-of-seven series is a throwaway, but the Lightning did take the opening game in Pittsburgh. And losing Game 2 would not be catastrophic; the Lightning already has a potential opening two-game split on the road. Besides, the Lightning has a very capable backup in Andrei Vasilev­skiy, who relieved Bishop in Game 1 and made 25 saves in Tampa Bay's 3-1 victory.

But the takeaway Sunday was that Bishop's season does not appear over. All his tests have come back normal, and you do got the sense he is going to play before this series ends.

When asked exactly where his leg hurt, Bishop smiled and gave the hockey answer: "We just have to leave it as 'lower leg.' "

Yep, sure sounds like he's close to normal.

"Now it's just a matter of getting back to where it feels good again," Bishop said. "But definitely (it is) just one of the scary things that has happened to me. It's funny when something like that happens and your mind just starts racing and just thinking the worst. Luckily, it's not that bad."

That seems remarkable based on the scene Friday when Bishop went down less than 14 minutes into the first period. And it's not as if he is a player with low pain tolerance. He played a portion of last year's Stanley Cup final with a partially torn groin.

But as the 29-year-old writhed on the ice Friday and couldn't even muster the strength to put weight on his left leg, it seemed certain that Bishop's next appointment would be with a surgeon, not the Penguins.

"It was just a scary experience for myself," he said. "You saw the play. Fell back, and I felt something I've never felt before and just pain right away. Your mind just starts racing. You start thinking the worst thing."

For Bishop, that was a season-ending injury. For the Lightning, it sure seemed season-ending, too. Bishop has been spectacular in these playoffs. And he was spectacular in the regular season. And last year's playoffs. And the regular season before that. And the regular season before that.

So you can see why some might question the Lightning's chances when the team MVP over the past three years needed a stretcher Friday night.

"I'm not sitting here saying Ben is going to play (Game 2)," coach Jon Cooper said. "We'll have to evaluate that. But (Friday night) did have a bleak scenario."

So bleak that Bishop's family and friends immediately reached out to him. This was no hangnail, and everyone knew it.

"Yeah, my phone definitely blew up," Bishop said. "A lot of people sending prayers. I'd like to thank everybody that did that. That means a lot. I'm sure my family was scared. Obviously, I talked to them afterwards as soon as I could and let them know what was going on."

The thing is, no one knew what was going on initially.

When Cooper announced right after the game that X-rays on the leg were negative, it still seemed hard to believe Bishop would play soon. The assumption was that X-rays wouldn't show a shredded ligament or torn Achilles. Don't you need an MRI exam for that?

Then the MRI came back clean. Bishop put on a pair of skates and tested the leg Sunday morning. No word on how that went, but that's the first step to returning.

Now there's a chance he will play. Maybe not in Game 2 or even Game 3. But before this Lightning season is over.

"(Tampa Bay) is beyond lucky right now," Weekes said.

Luck helps this time of year. So does having your best goalie.

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