Ben Bishop mystery adds intrigue to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final

Despite the uncertainty of Ben Bishop's health before Stanley Cup Final Game 3, the Tampa Bay Lightning are still better off in goal than they were during last year's playoffs.
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Jon Cooper stepped to the podium and began his news conference by saying there was no update on the condition of Ben Bishop, but it wasn’t long before the Tampa Bay Lightning’s coach was forced to acknowledge the obvious. His No. 1 goaltender would be unavailable for the next game. The start would go to the team’s relatively unproven backup.

“Even though Ben’s not going to be around, I think we have a goaltender who has done nothing but bide his time, work his tail off, be a great teammate and, to tell you the truth, I think our guys are cheering for him,” Cooper said.

That announcement came a little more than a year ago when an injury to Ben Bishop forced Cooper to turn to Anders Lindback to start Tampa Bay’s first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens. But even with all that cheering from teammates the stage proved a little too big for Lindback. He allowed 14 goals during the next three-and-a-half games and the Bolts were swept unceremoniously from the postseason.

Just as it did last season, the status of Bishop looms large today as the Lightning prepare to take on the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA).

Lightning show lesson learned with Game 2 win over Blackhawks

Nearly 48 hours after the veteran netminder removed himself in the third period of Game 2, returned briefly, and then came out again for good, there has been no official explanation for his startling exits and no update on his condition.

It’s probably no surprise then that Cooper’s not tipping his hand on Bishop’s availability for tonight.

“I don’t know ...  [Bishop] could be available,” Cooper said on Sunday. “You'll have a better indication, I guess, [Monday] at the skate. Although our morning skates are all optional anyway. [Bishop], notoriously he goes on sometimes during them and sometimes he doesn’t. I’m sure you’ll get a clue [on Monday].”

Maybe he knows. Maybe he doesn’t. All things being equal though, there’s no reason for Cooper to tip his hand. If the uncertainty of it all distracts the Hawks for even a minute of their own practice today, the subterfuge is worth it.

And if Bishop can’t go, there’s much less reason for concern than there was last spring.

Cooper’s half-hearted endorsement of Lindback in 2014 stands in stark contrast to his assessment of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who came on in relief of Bishop and stopped five shots to earn the victory on Saturday night.

“He’s played under some bright lights,” Cooper said of the young Russian goalie, who starred at the World Juniors and has 18 KHL playoff games on his resume. “He’s ready to go in at any moment.  So if Bish can’t go tomorrow, is that a blow to us? Sure it is. But do we think the series is lost because Vasilevskiy is going in? Not a chance.”

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos echoed the endorsement.

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“We have full confidence in him,” Stamkos said. “I know a lot of us talked about it [Saturday] night after the game. I think it’s helped him that he’s been thrown in the fire a little bit in the playoffs. We’ve been in some tough games where we’ve left [Bishop] out to dry, giving him a rest, he’s come in. He’s been in different situations. He had a couple goals scored on him early, didn’t rattle him. Like last game, came in, played well, made some saves.

“He’s waiting for his chance. Whether that’s [Monday] or not, he’ll be ready.”

Vasilevskiy is the real deal, arguably the best goaltending prospect in the world. For years scouts have raved about a blend of technique and raw athleticism that mirrors a young Carey Price. He’s toned down his aggressiveness under coach Frantz Jean—a positive, because it reduces his vulnerability to plays that move from side-to-side—and improved his rebound control. And he has the sort of confidence that sets him up to handle the pressure of this situation.

But he’s still young. Inexperienced. And he’s not Ben Bishop.

The Lightning will be fine with him between the pipes, but he’s still Plan B. We’ll find out soon if they have to resort to him or not.

UPDATE: Bishop looked comfortable taking shots during the Lightning’s morning skate today, but was a bit less at ease taking questions from the press after he got off the ice. “I feel like Marshawn Lynch right now,” he said after offering up a few brief, evasive answers about his condition and availability for Game 3.

Bishop chose not to reveal whatever it was that bothered him during Game 2, though Florida's inimitable Roberto Luongo weighed in via Twitter with his own rather unsavory theory. Asked if he would play tonight Bishop replied, "We'll see."

“How many more ways are we going to ask this?” said Cooper. “I don’t know who is starting. I will find out after this media session. We have two capable goalies that we have 100% confidence in. One of them is playing. It’s Vasi or Bish. That will be determined tonight.”

In other words, we don’t know anything more now than we did earlier this morning. But believe this: If Bishop felt up to facing the media, he’ll likely be ready for the Blackhawks later tonight.


The numbers game

• The Lightning are now 8-1 in games after a loss after a loss this postseason. They’ve lost two in a row only once: Games 4 and 5 of their second round series vs. Montreal. Seven of their past nine games against Blackhawks have been decided by one goal dating back to March 9, 2011.

• Since 2004, only one Stanley Cup Final has begun with a split of the first two games: In 2013, the Blackhawks won Game 1 in triple overtime against the Bruins, who took Game 2 in OT). Chicago went on to win the series in six. The team that has won Game 3 after a split has ended up with the Stanley Cup on 21 of the 26 occasions since the series became a best-of-seven in 1939.

• ​Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning is only the fourth goalie to win a Stanley Cup Final game that he did not start. The others: Lester Patrick of the Rangers in Game 2 against the Maroons in 1928, Roger Crozier of the Sabres in Game 3 vs. the Flyers in 1975, and Frank Pietrangelo of the Penguinsin Game 5 vs. the North Stars in 1991. Patrick, who was the Rangers’ coach, entered hockey lore by relieving, at age 44, starter Lorne Chabot who had been injured.


Hot links

• They say there are no words to describe winning the Stanley Cup. Turns out there are plenty to describe losing it in Game 7. Might want to refill the morning cup o’ joe before settling in for this one, but it’s well worth the time.

• Attention Brendan Shanahan (and Tim Murray and Ron Francis and Peter Chiarelli): Two templates for a successful rebuild are on display tonight in Chicago.

• In this week’s 30 Thoughts column Elliotte Friedman looks at the the possibility that shot blocking will be banned by the NHL plus some other rule changes that are in the works.

• You say you can't stand P.K. Subban? This will make you change your mind.

• Top draft prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will be at Game 3 tonight for the traditional top prospect visit to the Stanley Cup Final. Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane look back on what that experience meant to them.