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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Bolts success means Bishop is ‘in it’

Growing up in St. Louis, he couldn’t play enough sports. But there was a pattern. In baseball, Ben Bishop enjoyed pitching and catching, in on every delivery. He liked quarterback in middle school, in the middle of it all, every play. He eventually gave up all the sports but one. He wanted to be a hockey goaltender, all that action coming his way.

“As a younger kid, you like playing the whole game,” Ben Bishop said. “You want to be in the ‘In it’ part of it.”

It’s like that these days for Bishop. He’s in it, up to his mask.

Maybe the Lightning have found their No. 1.

If that’s for real, this season is a success, no matter what else happens.

Bishop is 6-7, but has stood taller, with nine wins in 11 starts, including a dazzling shootout win at defending Cup champ Chicago in his season debut. It set the tone. It’s no coincidence that the 10-4 Lightning, who play Edmonton Thursday night at the Forum, are tied atop the Atlantic Division. The battle for No. 1 with Anders Lindback hasn’t materialized. Bishop has taken the puck and run with it.

“I truly do believe he’s been our best player this year,” Lightning center Nate Thompson said.

Since Nik Khabibulin helped carry the Bolts to the Stanley Cup 10 years ago, Tampa Bay has mostly been the place where No. 1 goalies, or alleged No. 1s, go to die, with the exception of Dwayne Roloson’s unearthly roll to the brink of the Cup finals in 2011 (no coincidence, goalie and success).

GM Steve Yzerman has Bishop and Lindback. He needs to hit on one or else. One of these guys has to be the guy.

Bishop has been that early on, generally unflappable and nearly always giving his guys a chance to win. He began the season 5-0. He has a 2.15 goals against and a .925 save percentage. He has allowed 23 goals, but nine came in two games, a loss against Boston and a win over Chicago. In nine of his 11 starts, he has allowed two goals or less.

“Quite frankly, goals against and save percentage are looked at by everybody as the key,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I only look at wins. It’s ‘Did he win the game?’ That’s the only (stat) that matters to me.”

Bishop has won the games.

“It’s never just the goalie,” he said. “It’s the team in front of him and around him. The guys have to do their jobs, and they’ve been great in front of me.

“You always here about goalies and quarterbacks – well, it’s the same in that we always depend on other people. We get too much credit sometimes.”

On the other hand, when the red light is on, everyone in the seats looks at the man in the net.

“Yeah, there’s that,” Bishop said with a grin.

“He has the job, but he’s earning the job,” Cooper said. “It hasn’t been given to him. Ben Bishop has holes, but I think he’s raised his competition level from last year to this year. He understands what we expect of him.”

The Bolts paid a hefty price for Bishop, forking over the promising Cory Conacher to Ottawa. If that gave Bishop the idea this job was his by acclamation ...

“I think he may have thought that coming in this year,” Cooper said. “He didn’t start opening night. I think we’ve thrown challenges there ... like when he was pulled (in a loss to Boston). Or not getting the start opening night. He seized it by having an exceptional game the next night.”

It’s way too early to be crowning Bishop as a runaway goalie. After Thursday night, the Lightning play seven of their next eight games on the road, at Detroit, Boston and Montreal, tough houses, and a four-game Western Conference swing: Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose. The West is blowing away the East this season. Note: Bishop is 5-0 with a .935 save percentage against the West.

We’ll know more about this team, and this goaltender, after these trips.

What we know right now is that Ben Bishop is the “in it” part of it.

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