TAMPA — It is time for opposing teams to add this line to their scouting report when playing the Lightning: "Keep it away from 'Bish.' "
Goalie Ben Bishop practiced Wednesday with the team for the second straight day and could return to the lineup tonight when the Lightning hosts the Sabres or Friday when it hosts the Blue Jackets.
His return will be a welcome addition to a team that has struggled playing defense, and not just because he's one of the top goalies in the NHL. Bishop handles the puck as well as a defenseman.
"It's like having a third defenseman back there," defenseman Jason Garrison said. "It can really be an option. So in terms of breaking (the puck) out (of the offensive zone), it's huge. He can stop pucks, stop rims. It makes (opponents) have to think about where they're going to dump the puck. Sometimes that's hard to do when you're getting back-pressure. It helps decrease their forecheck and helps us break the puck out."
Bishop has not played since Dec. 20, when he suffered a lower-body injury while making a kick save with his right leg during the first period against the Red Wings.
Andrei Vasilevskiy started the next nine games. The Lightning was 3-5-1 in that stretch and has allowed 22 goals in the past four games, all losses.
"Listen, the kid 'Vasy,' give him so much credit," assistant coach Rick Bowness said after Wednesday's practice. "We couldn't have played any worse in front of him in some of those games … and he gave us a chance in almost every game.
"He battles so hard. He works so hard. He's such a great kid, and he's a great young goaltender (22 years old). It's unfortunate for him that we played as poorly as we did when he was in there. Now it's great to say, 'Yeah, it's great that Bish is coming back.' But man, we got to play a whole lot better in front of him, too."
Teams play a different style when facing Bishop. They crash the defensive zone with more aggression when Bishop is not in goal because they have less fear of a clearing pass that can send the Lightning on an odd-man rush.
That's why, Bowness said, teams include those five words — keep it away from Bish — on the scouting report when they know Bishop is playing.
"When they make a mistake and they don't get (the puck) in the right area or go soft, (Bishop) gets it and we're out of there," Bowness said. "That's a huge benefit to us, especially now when we're giving up so many chances … (and) so many goals. The less time we spend in our zone, the better we're all going to be."
Said Garrison: "If guys aren't smart with where they dump the pucks or Bish is making a play that can beat a couple of guys, next thing you know, we're in the offensive zone. You can see it. (Opponents) have to think about where they dump pucks, and if they don't, it can be a much easier breakout for us."
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.