A helpless feeling engulfed Ben Bishop during last season's playoffs as the Canadiens swept Tampa Bay in six days. • In a desperate attempt to help his team, the injured Lightning goaltender constantly switched his vantage points during games, hoping that would magically do the trick. • "I watched them in every different parts of both rinks, trying to change the karma," Bishop says, chuckling. "I saw them from the locker room, the (team) box, the press box. The trainer's room. I was pretty antsy." • So was the Lightning, with the rookie-laden team unable to mentally recover after watching a dislocated elbow end its No. 1 goalie's season a week before Game 1. • " 'Bish' was our rock all season long," center Tyler Johnson says. "When he goes down like that right before the playoffs, when we're already nervous and hyped up for it, it played a role. You think differently. Unfortunately for us, I thought we overreacted a little bit to it, and that showed in the series."
Fortunately for the Lightning, Bishop is healthy heading into its first-round series against the Red Wings, which opens tonight at Amalie Arena. As good as Bishop, 28, has been the past two seasons, including setting a club record with 40 wins this season, goalies are defined by their postseason accolades. And tonight is Bishop's first playoff start.
Bishop said he's more focused than excited, planning to treat it like any other game. But his teammates see something deeper.
"He wants this," captain Steven Stamkos says. "He has that drive. He wants to be the guy that can help our team go on a run. When you have that quiet confidence about your game, it's contagious around the room and guys want to play well in front of him."
A few goalies have won a Stanley Cup in their first postseason. The group includes Patrick Roy in 1986 with the Canadiens, Cam Ward in 2006 with the Hurricanes and Antti Niemi in 2010 with the Blackhawks. And with the Lightning aspiring to make a deep run this season, it needs its 6-foot-7 goalie to come up big.
"He's the foundational piece for that franchise," says NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, a former Lightning goaltender. "The Lightning obviously has (Stamkos), and we all know he's a top-five player in the world. Victor Hedman is becoming a star. The 'Triplets' line is arguably the best line in hockey. But I really think all of that would be moot without Ben Bishop."
Bishop effectively has ended the Lightning's longtime search for a starting goaltender. He established himself last season as a Vezina Trophy (league's top goalie) finalist. His numbers weren't as eye-popping this season: 2.32 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage — but he posted three more wins, including four in his last five starts.
"I'm excited, but I'm not going to put any extra pressure on myself," Bishop says. "I don't expect every game to be like an oil painting, but I expect to get more comfortable with every game."
Bishop has a swagger about him. Weekes says coach Jon Cooper has told him Bishop has the highest hockey IQ on the Lightning.
When Bishop takes the ice tonight, the crowd might be louder, the stakes higher, but he downplays the hype.
"It's the same game, same rink, same players, same everything," Bishop says. "It's just a little bit more amped up."
A little? Senators goaltender Craig Anderson begs to differ but says Bishop has the right approach.
"The shock of it all. The hair on the back of your neck is standing up through the national anthem," says Anderson, who is 10-12 in 23 playoff games. "It's about getting in the right state of mind. If you put too much pressure on the game, you might set yourself out of it."
Anderson says the biggest difference in a playoff series is that opponents can learn your tendencies and make you pay. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne says "everything is magnified," the intensity heightened, but being in the playoffs is why you play the game. "It's always a chance for a player to step up and be a hero," he says.
Will it be Bishop? He has thrived in big games this season, going 5-0-0 with a 1.59 GAA in a season sweep of the Canadiens (and potential league MVP Carey Price). He was 3-1-0 against the Red Wings.
"Has he played with the bright light of the Stanley Cup playoffs? He has not," Cooper says. "But at some point, you've got to get your first one.
"If he was a rookie coming in the league, or 21 or 22, but he's what, 28 years old? His mental makeup is much more mature. He's been a rock for us the two years we've had him. And I'll tell you: There's not a guy in the room who would want anyone else back there but him."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.