CHICAGO — At the juncture of speculation and spectacular, Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop stood in his crease at the end of Game 3, the unquestioned—if not unscathed—winner. For 60 minutes, the central figure in the last 48 hours of media medical conjecture had labored through what appeared to be lower-body pain, especially early in the game. In between whistles, Bishop slowly and gingerly got back to his feet with his paddle improvising as a crutch. He looked as creaky as an old wooden door, one that Tampa Bay seemed content to leave ajar in a lopsided first period. But in the end, Bishop made 36 saves on the night, just enough to give the Lightning their 3–2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks and take a two-games-to-one lead in the Stanley Cup Final.
“I mean, the stage he was on and [with] all the uncertainty that was going on, for him to respond that way, especially in the first,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos mused.
With his on-again, off-again dance through the third period of Game 2, Bishop had turned his 6' 7" frame into hockey’s tallest question mark for Monday night at the United Center. After the morning skate, he wouldn’t answer questions about his health, remarking that he “felt like [Seattle Seahawks’ reticent running back] Marshawn Lynch.” Lightning coach Jon Cooper, a normally loquacious fellow, also shut his own remarks down. But ultimately Cooper only needed to look into the eyes of his goalie to find his faith.
“We talked long and hard if he could play tonight,” Cooper said. “You can read when guys are sitting there, saying, Coach, I’ll go for you…. [Bishop] said, give me the net. [And] I knew we were going to be okay.”
In the first period on Monday night, however, there did seem to be plenty of reasons for doubt. Though Tampa Bay struck first with a lightning-quick slapshot off the stick of Ryan Callahan just five minutes in, the rest of the period belonged to the home team. “We knew [Chicago] would come out flying, and give them credit, they were all over the ice,” Stamkos said.
Seeing weakness in the Lightning’s net, the Blackhawks squeezed at the pressure points. Creating traffic in front of Bishop, wreaking havoc on his sightlines and robbing him of space, Chicago took physicality straight to the front of the crease. It helped lead to a first-period power play, when Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn was called for hooking while jockeying for position in front of Bishop.
On the subsequent man advantage, Chicago controlled the puck in the offensive zone for a full 73 seconds before Brad Richards took a point shot that clipped Bishop’s glove on its way in. The goal evened the score, but it could easily have been the Blackhawks’ third or fourth of the period. After Callahan’s goal, on Tampa Bay’s fifth shot, Chicago responded with vigor, taking the next 16 of the game. That total doesn’t include two misses that would go on to haunt the Blackhawks. Looking at a yawning net—Bishop had slid into another zip code to make an initial save—Chicago winger Marian Hossa swept the puck toward the empty cage and missed by an inch. Less than a minute later, Teuvo Teravainen also sent a rebound wide of a wide-open net.
Bishop would later concede his rebound control could have been better, but as his teammates have done throughout these playoffs, they rebounded after the first period. “We hit the reset button after the first,” Stamkos said. “It wasn’t pretty. But this group’s ability… to just forget about that was impressive tonight.”
Said defenseman Anton Stralman: “We told ourselves to take a breath, to find our game again. Exhale again and kind of just start over.”
Tampa Bay’s second effort was far better, led by its flourishing defenseman Victor Hedman who had two assists, five blocked shots and played more than 26 minutes in the Game 3 win. The 24-year-old Swedish behemoth blueliner has quietly outplayed Chicago’s celebrated defense corps, including Duncan Keith, and has four points in his last two games. Monday night, he showed flashes of brilliance on two of Tampa Bay’s goals. In the first, he sprung Callahan on the semi-breakaway with a gorgeous, if improbable, 140-foot stretch pass and went from behind his goal line to Callahan’s blade at the far blue. And with less than four minutes remaining in the game, he led the rush on the winner.
With speed that belies his 6’ 6”, 233-pound frame, Hedman skates like a player half his size. Carrying the puck with speed through the neutral zone, he confidently took it wide of Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook and fed a beautiful centering pass to Cedric Paquette in the slot.
“This is clearly his coming-out party,” Cooper said of his top defenseman. “He was a monster out there tonight.”
The questions regarding Bishop will remain—that is for certain—but Hedman leaves no doubt.