Sunday May 24th, 2015

News and notes ahead of Sunday's pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final in New York (8 EDT, NBC).

It's funny how quickly the target can change in a playoff series. Heading into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final the knives were out for Henrik Lundqvist after the all-world keeper who had allowed six goals in back-to-back losses.

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Heading into Sunday's Game 5, the focus has shifted from Lundqvist to Ben Bishop, the Lightning netminder who has surrendered five goals in consecutive games.

Despite his apparent struggles, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper quickly shot down the suggestion he might sit his starter in favor of rookie Andrei Vaslievskiy.

“Asinine,” Cooper told reporters. “What would be another word for that? Preposterous. OK, that's one more syllable than asinine. It's more powerful.”

In other words, he'll continue dancin' with the one what brung him.

“I just don't think you get here to this point in the season and even into the playoffs without having a goaltender, a guy that bails you out when you need to be bailed out,” he continued. “Ben Bishop has bailed us out some games. Have we bailed him out? Sure we have sometimes. But for the most part, Bishop has been rock solid for us. Especially for a kid that's not played in an NHL playoff game before. There is a brighter light on him, and all he's done is passed every test that gets sent his way. The tighter the game has got and the more pressure packed the series got, Ben Bishop got better, and you can't ask any more than that.”

He's right about that. When the Lightning have needed a win this spring, he's raised his game to meet the challenge. Bishop offered up his best performance of the Detroit series in Game 7, a tidy 31-save shutout that sent the pesky Red Wings packing. He did it again against the Canadiens, allowing a single goal in the decisive Game 6 to stem the tide after Montreal had claimed two in a row.

The Eastern Conference Final isn't on the line tonight, but this moment is equally large. And there's a sense it could take a similarly dominant effort from Bishop to prevent this series from turning irrevocably New York's way.

Does he have it in him?

Bishop wasn't the biggest problem in that 5-1 blowout loss Friday night. It's a different game if the Lightning's normally sure-handed shooters didn't waste so many Grade-A scoring opportunities. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn all had uncontested looks at Lundqvist early on. If even one of them connects he might have re-routed the rout. And it didn't help that his defense bobbled the puck like a recently unpinned grenade over the final 40 minutes. The game ultimately turned on Brenden Morrow's unforced giveaway behind the net with the score knotted at one in the second. It's unfair to blame Bishop for that one.

Still, in two games played in Tampa Bishop allowed 10 goals on 52 shots. An .808 save percentage. He has to own that.

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Rebound control has become an issue again, as it was earlier in the playoffs. Even the best goalie is going to kick one into a dangerous area now and then, but Bishop is dropping too many of them four or five feet out front near the blades of Ranger shooters. And while his positioning looks much more settled than it did in the first two rounds, he's still the near-opposite of economy when it comes to his movement, creating moments when his vulnerabilities are glaringly obvious.

But it's not just technique that's a concern. The big question is where his head is at.

No one was surprised when Lundqvist bounced back in Game 4 because he's proven he can answer the bell after being knocked down. Bishop doesn't have that track record. Like Cooper said, this is his first rodeo. It's one thing to face adversity in the regular season. Responding to it in the playoffs, especially with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on the line, is a whole different challenge.

Cooper may have faith in Bishop's ability to rise to the moment, but Vasilevskiy might want to stay loose. Just in case.








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