TAMPA — If you go by the numbers, Lightning goalie Ben Bishop hasn't been as good as last season.
To be fair, Bishop set a spectacular standard in 2013-14 with 37 wins, a 2.23 goals against average and a .924 save percentage, becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist.
"If you're going to keep that up year after year after year, you'll be in the Hall of Fame at some point," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "That's tough to do. Don't know too many guys that can do that."
But Bishop's 2.38 goals against average ranked 16th in the NHL going into Sunday's games. His .912 save percentage was 23rd. If the Lightning (29-14-4) is going to stay atop the standings and make a deep playoff run, Bishop will need to be at his best, especially with veteran Evgeni Nabokov struggling in his first year as a backup (3-6-2, 3.15, .882).
Though his numbers are down, Bishop said the only stat he worries about is wins. And he has 23, ranked fourth in the league and just one off his total through his first 36 games last season. Bishop hasn't had to steal as many games for Tampa Bay as last season, but he has proved capable of carrying them, including his 40-save performance in Saturday's 3-2 shootout win over the Avalanche. He has won seven of his last eight starts.
"He's been our backbone all year," wing Ryan Callahan said. "He may not get the kind of recognition he deserves or needs. But everyone in this room knows how good he is. We don't sit atop of the standings without him playing the way he has."
The Lightning hasn't been able to count on Nabokov, with questions on when, and if, he'll make another start. Prospects Andrei Vasilevskiy or Kristers Gudlevskis could come up and make a spot start or two.
But Bishop must be the No. 1 the Lightning hoped for when it acquired him from Ottawa in March 2013.
"Since he's been here, he's brought stability to goaltending," said Avalanche coach Patrick Roy, a Hall of Fame goaltender. "He's one of the premier goalies in our league right now."
After signing a two-year extension in August, Bishop felt like he had something to prove, that he didn't want to be a "one-hit wonder." Bishop has been steady, but hasn't needed to be the star, with the Lightning playing better in front of him. Tampa Bay is the highest scoring team in the NHL, but goals are hard to come by in the playoffs — clubs don't often score their way to the Cup. The Lightning also allows the fourth-fewest shots per game (27.3). Fifteen times, Bishop has faced 25 or fewer shots over a full game. He has seen 109 fewer shots than at this point last year.
"It makes it a little more difficult," Bishop said. "The last 3-4 years, for myself, I'm used to getting 30-40 shots a night. To throw on the brakes like that and get 20 shots a game, it's a little bit of an adjustment period. I'm still learning to deal with it."
Bishop said facing fewer shots hurts his save percentage. A couple of rough relief appearances bumped up his goals against average. As long as they win, he says those don't matter.
The most encouraging thing is, Bishop is healthy. Cooper said this point last season was the "beginning of the end," with Bishop suffering a right wrist injury that impacted him the rest of the way, plus nagging hip and ankle issues.
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But while Bishop missed a few games with a lower-body injury in December, he said he feels great. Already at 36 games played, he's on pace to potentially top the 63 he appeared in last year.
"I don't look at it and say, 'Well he hasn't been as good as last year,' " Cooper said. "We had to lean on him so much more last year. But you still look, he's got 23 wins, and we have 29 as a team. So he's really helping us win some games.
"Would he like his numbers to be better? Of course. We'd like all our numbers to be better. I'd like to be 47-0. It doesn't work that way. And he's been solid when called upon. When we've needed him, he's been there."
Contact Joe Smith at email@example.com.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Ryan Callahan plays a video game with fans Sunday at the Bolts Family Carnival at Amalie Arena. Players, coaches and executives participated with about 2,400 fans for events such as a dunk tank and air hockey.