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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Big Ben again needs to stand tall for Bolts

TAMPA — The long and short of it was that it was fun. Monday morning, Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop hooked up with his friend Darren Pang, the longtime hockey color analyst. At one point in the dressing room, the 6-foot-7 Bishop, the tallest goalie in NHL history, traded equipment with Pang, at 5-5 the second shortest goalie in NHL history. Pang’s old leg pads looked like soccer shin guards on Bishop, who was probably 5-5 when he was 10. Everyone laughed.

Speaking of fun ...

“If you can’t get up for the playoffs, there’s something wrong with you,” Bishop said.

Just how tall will Ben Bishop stand in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

We have no idea.

The postseason is around the corner and as great as Bishop has been — 37 wins of great — he has never been around that corner.

When the postseason cranks up next week, he’ll likely be down the ice from Montreal goaltender Carey Price, who helped Canada win gold at the Sochi Olympics.

True, Price has a spotty NHL playoff record, just 9-17.

But Bishop, 27, has no NHL playoff record.

Not one Stanley Cup game.

That’s a whole lot of unknown.

“Obviously every experience you have helps,” Bishop said with his usual grin. “I was fortunate to back up for a series with St. Louis and a series with Ottawa, so I kind of have an idea what the games are like.”

Kind of have an idea?

“You don’t change the way you play. The game might be more intense, the guys might be hitting more, but for the goalie, it’s the same thing: Get in the way of pucks.”

That’s easy to say.

The Lightning are nowhere near the playoffs without Bishop. He had played in only 45 NHL games before this season, but has proven himself a No. 1 across 62 games, with a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Think the ringing endorsement Bolts GM Steve Yzerman received Monday — a four-year contract extension — would look any good if Yzerman’s trade for Bishop hadn’t worked this well? Bishop has won games for the Bolts, especially as the club weathered Steven Stamkos’ injury and absence.

“Bish was kind of the rock back there,” Stamkos said.

The rock has hit some bumps since the Olympic break, allowing roughly a goal per game more than he did before it. Bishop has still made big saves, like in last week’s win over Montreal that secured the Lightning’s playoff spot, but heading into Tuesday night against Toronto, he has lost twice in a row. He has looked rough around the edges.

And here come the playoffs.

“He’s been under that spotlight before, just not at this level,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I have complete, 100 percent confidence in him. Every time he’s been challenged, he’s always responded.”

It’s hard to believe 62 games haven’t taken a toll. Bishop insists he feels the same, at least mentally. There’s that nagging wrist injury.

“You don’t feel quite as fresh as you did before,” Bishop said. “I think that’s probably the only little thing.”

Ten years ago, when the Lightning lifted the Cup, Nikolai Khabibulin was always there. When the Bolts made the Eastern Conference final in 2011, Dwayne Roloson stood out. But those were playoff veterans. Bishop’s only professional postseason experience, listed in the Lightning media guide, is a single game for the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen.

“I don’t think it’s any different from the regular season,“ he said of the playoffs. “You’re going to have good games and you’re going to have bad games. You’ve just got to prepare and get ready for the next game.”

Bishop has been magnificent this season.

Now comes another challenge.

The playoffs are different.

That’s the long and short of it.

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