TAMPA — In many ways, last season was a banner year for Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.
Bishop, 27, finally established himself as a No. 1 goalie, grabbing the starting spot early and never letting it go. Bishop set multiple franchise records in leading Tampa Bay to the playoffs. Now he's a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded Tuesday in Las Vegas to the league's top goalie. Boston's Tuukka Rask is the favorite.
"It's exciting, a great honor," Bishop said. "I'm kind of at a loss for words."
But Bishop did have some choice words to describe last season, which ended sourly and abruptly for him with a dislocated elbow April 8. He missed the first-round playoff series, in which the Lightning was swept by the Canadiens.
"It almost feels like it was incomplete, that I didn't get to finish it off," Bishop said. "There's still a lot of fuel. I'm ready to go right now."
Well, not yet. Bishop, who played the second half of the season with a right wrist injury, has rehabilitated in Tampa since April surgery to repair a torn ligament. His elbow is close to 100 percent. Bishop plans to begin skating in August and should be ready by training camp in September.
"Absolutely," he said.
The Lightning needs Bishop to be ready, knowing how important he was to its turnaround from second-to-last in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13 to third last season. Bishop set team records last season with 37 wins, a 2.23 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage, and tied for third in the league in shutouts (five). Coach Jon Cooper said Bishop turned what's long been a "sour spot" in the organization — instability in net — to one of its strengths.
"I'll be the first one to sit here and say you can say whatever you want about my coaching or whatever about the play of the rookies," Cooper said. "Ben Bishop was probably the leading factor in why we finished where we did."
That is why it was so tough for Bishop to have to sit and watch the Lightning get swept in the first round by the Canadiens.
Bishop had played with a cast on his right wrist since hurting it Jan. 5 in Edmonton, joking he led the league in dropped sticks. But on April 8 against Toronto, a seemingly innocent play led to the end of his season. Bishop dove to catch a floating puck but hit the ice hard and landed awkwardly on his left arm.
When he hit the ice, he felt the elbow pop out of place. His first thought was that he'd miss the playoffs.
"I knew something was really wrong," he said. "It wasn't my finest moment."
Bishop needed to be helped off the ice. Between periods, teammates went to check on him in the training room. "(Captain Steven Stamkos) gave me a hug, and I actually started crying," Bishop said. "It was tough."
Bishop tried to come back, saying he could have played if the Canadiens series had gone to a Game 6. He alternated watching games from the press box and the locker room.
"I was everywhere," he said. "I couldn't sit still."
Bishop had postgame talks with backup goalie Anders Lindback, who played "tremendous," he said.
Bishop said it was easy to think "what if?" But he would rather focus on what's in his control.
He always believed he could be a No. 1 goalie. He just needed the opportunity. Acquired from Ottawa in an April 2013 trade, he had played in just 45 NHL games for three teams before last season, when Bishop played in 63.
"I think it's just a chance to play," Bishop said. "There's only 30 spots in the world where you can get a chance to be a starting goalie (in the NHL). When I went into the season, I just wanted to play well. It turned into a good thing.
"Obviously this was a great year. Hopefully we can do the same next year."
Bishop credited his teammates for their performance in front of him. Stamkos believes it was a "huge year for (Bishop) confidence-wise."
Though Bishop enters next season more established, he said nothing will change.
"You're not going to get comfortable," Bishop said. "I've still got a long ways to go. If you get comfortable, that's when you start taking step backwards. I'm going to come in the same way, fight for the job again and take it from there."
NHL Awards series
With the awards ceremony Tuesday in Las Vegas (7, NBC Sports Network), the Tampa Bay Times profiles the Lightning's finalists:
Sunday: Jon Cooper (Jack Adams, coach of the year)
Today: Ben Bishop (Vezina, top goaltender)
Tuesday: Center Tyler Johnson and wing Ondrej Palat (Calder, rookie of the year)