TAMPA — Entering this season, plenty of questions surrounded the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goaltending situation.
That’s not exactly a revelation with this franchise.
But nearly halfway through the season, Ben Bishop has been a revelation. In what figures to be his 27th start of the season tonight against Carolina, the 27-year-old is tied for the league lead with three shutouts, he is second in the league with 18 victories, third with a .934 save percentage and fourth with a 1.96 goals-against average.
Bishop heads into tonight’s meeting have shut out the Hurricanes twice in two outings, stopping 76 consecutive shots. In 21 of his 26 starts this season, Bishop has allowed two or fewer goals.
“He’s been our best player,’’ Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer said.
The timing of Bishop’s breakout season could not be better.
Of course he has been brilliant for the Lightning and might finally be the answer after the team’s 8-year search for a No. 1 goaltender.
But Jan. 1, Team USA will announce the 25 players who will represent the United States at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Though Bishop might not have the resume of 2010 U.S. Olympic hero Ryan Miller or Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick or the pedigree of Corey Schneider, the Lightning netminder is having the best season to this point of any American goaltender.
That has put Bishop’s name squarely in the sights to be one of the three goaltenders named to the roster on New Year’s Day after the Winter Classic.
“Every position is going to be difficult, and we have depth at all positions,’’ said Team USA general manager David Poile. “We have a goaltender that has won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe award (Quick), our 2010 Olympic goalie (Miller), and we have other goalies that are doing unbelievable this year, and that includes Ben Bishop. So I’m sure we are going to be making decisions that are going to upset some people at the end of the day, but we are just trying to do the best we can.’’
Bishop said he hasn’t given the Olympics much, if any, thought and he has been concentrating solely on the task at hand — playing well and helping the Lightning win games.
“I wasn’t ever guaranteed a spot (on the Olympic roster), so it’s more of just take care of your game here with the Lightning and if you play well enough that will come into consideration,’’ Bishop said. “So it’s one of those things where there’s (four) more games left until the selection, so if I play well in those games then I’m sure that flight to Vancouver (on Dec. 30) will be on my mind a lot.
“But I have to take care of business here, so it’s easy to focus on this knowing that if I don’t play well here that it’s not going to happen.’’
There are more things to take into consideration than just statistics this season as Team USA officials start making their selections for the roster, and that’s why Miller and Quick (who has been out with a groin injury) appear to be assured spots. But if basing those selections on how all the candidates have performed to this point in the season, then Bishop would seem to be a logical choice to make the team.
“If you are going on complete merit and statistics, and if that’s your gauge of 2013 this season, it’s hard not to think he’s one of the top three U.S. goalies,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “There are arguments to be made for other players, but the one thing I think that is battling Ben is he didn’t have any NHL game experience.
“I’m not part of management, so I’m just speaking for what I feel, but would I take a goalie with 40 games of experience in the NHL and run right through the Olympics? I don’t know if that’s the thinking, but if it’s based solely on this season you have to take them.’’
Bishop isn’t fretting over it at this point, though there is an understanding that his play has kept him in the conversation right up until the end.
“Absolutely, I hear all the talking and everything,’’ he said. “I’d like to think that I’ve done all that I can do, so there’s a few games left to keep rolling here and make it as hard of a decision on them as possible.’’