Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop (30) celebrates with right wing J.T. Brown (23) after the team defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 during Game 6 of a second-round NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoff series Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo
Chris O'Meara
May 15, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Lightning have a pretty good idea of where they'd likely be without Ben Bishop, and it's not in the NHL's Eastern Conference finals.

The league's tallest goaltender is making a name for himself, answering questions about how far he can carry his team with one stellar performance after another in the playoffs.

The 6-foot-7 Bishop won a personal-best and franchise-record 40 games in helping the Lightning to the best regular season in club history. Now, he's showing he has what it takes to not only hold his own, but thrive against hockey's elite on the game's biggest stage.

''It's just a byproduct of what we've watched for two years,'' coach Jon Cooper said Thursday before his team boarded a plane for New York, where Tampa Bay opens the best of seven conference finals against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers on Saturday.

''We didn't get to watch him play in the playoffs last year because he was hurt. But the only reason we were in the playoffs - well, I shouldn't say the only reason, but a big reason - was because of Ben,'' Cooper added. ''I think this year, we needed Ben. But we didn't need him as much as we did the year before. But to get where we are today, through two playoff rounds, we've really needed him.''

With Bishop out with a bad back, the Lightning were swept by Montreal in the opening round a year ago. Any lingering doubts about whether he could have made a difference in that series are being dispelled.

Since allowing three goals on 14 shots to lose his playoff debut against Detroit last month, Bishop has been superb in leading Tampa Bay past the Red Wings and Canadiens to reach the conference finals.

He won Games 6 and 7 to help the Lightning overcome a 3-2 series deficit against Detroit and young goaltender Petr Mzarek.

Tampa Bay eliminated Montreal in six games, with Bishop outperforming league MVP candidate Carey Price in the clincher.

''I feel like I've been pretty consistent,'' Bishop said. ''I don't think I've played better or worse in any game, to be honest.''

Cooper agreed.

''When the pressure is at its highest is when he has stood the tallest,'' the coach said. ''You look at the four teams left, you'll probably say that about all the goaltenders. They've maybe had their struggles in the series, but at the biggest moments, they became the biggest stars.''

Lundqvist and the Rangers stand between the Lightning and the franchise's second-ever trip to the Stanley Cup final.

Tampa Bay went 3-0 against New York during the regular season, outscoring the Rangers 15-7. The Lightning have won five of six games between the teams over the past two seasons.

Bishop's teammates expect him to play well.

''Bish has been our backbone all year,'' forward Ryan Callahan said.

''Coming into the playoffs, people were questioning him because he'd never been in the playoffs before, but I think he answered that pretty quickly,'' Callahan added. ''The way he's played, the way he's performed, his calmness on and off the ice, it's been impressive to watch.''

Bishop, meanwhile, stressed it's Lightning vs. Rangers, not a personal battle between him against Lundqvist to determine how he stacks up against one of the league's top goaltenders.

''I don't think you go out there and try to prove that, but it's always fun to play against the best,'' the goalie said.

''They're a really good team, obviously,'' Bishop added. ''They're first in the conference for a reason. They have great goaltending, strong defense. ... It's going to be a tough challenge. It should be a lot of fun.''

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