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Goaltender questions remain as Bolts open season tonight

TAMPA — Recently, when the Tampa Bay Lightning hit the ice, the red-light district heats up.

With two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner Steven Stamkos and two-time scoring champion Marty St. Louis on the same line, Tampa Bay knows how to put the puck in the net and turn on the red light behind an opposing goaltender.

But instead of being defined by their ability to score goals and having the flashing red light serve as a beacon for their success, the Lightning are known for giving goals up and being burned by the red glare that puts the spotlight squarely on Tampa Bay's net play.

In the past two seasons, Tampa Bay's 425 goals allowed were 29 more than any other team in the league. Though the blame does not fall entirely on the goaltending, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has attempted several times in a relatively short period time to find somebody to provide stability.

Yet, the same old questions regarding the same position are present as Tampa Bay gets set to open the 2013-14 season tonight in Boston.

“I would expect the biggest question mark for the coaching staff and for Steve Yzerman as the general manager — can Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback form a great 1-2 punch in goal?'' NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said.

Yzerman invested plenty over the past 18 months to acquire Bishop, the tallest goaltender in the league at 6-foot-7, and Lindback, who stands 6-foot-6. He traded away two second-round picks, a third-rounder, a fourth-rounder and sparkplug forward Cory Conacher in hopes one member of the tallest goaltending tandem in NHL history will stand tall.

Traditionally, two goalies vying for one net equates to poor math. Teams prefer a workhorse, a goaltender capable of playing 75 games at a high level, with a backup filling in when the starter needs a breather.

In the absence of that, however, the Lightning have opted to use two goaltenders of similar age at roughly the same stage of their development.

Neither Bishop nor Lindback has been a regular starter in the NHL. Bishop was squeezed out in St. Louis and Ottawa before landing with the Lightning last season. In Nashville, Lindback was behind Pekka Rinne — one of the league's workhorses — who appeared in 85 percent of the games.

The Lightning are banking that the internal competition for playing time between Bishop and Lindback will push both to improve, thereby improving the team.

“I know Anders and I know Ben, I know that they are both going to be competitive,'' former NHL goaltender and current analyst Darren Pang said. “They want the net, so the only thing you can control is how well you play.

“My feeling is, I think they are going to be a real good tandem and compete for that spot. And, ultimately, the guy that's playing the best is going to get the net.''

Charting the waters to get to that point, however, is not always easy for a coaching staff.

The plan to start the season, according to Lightning coach Jon Cooper, is to split the time between the two and then start to evaluate from that point. But with similar goaltenders, both in stature and style, Cooper will have a look beyond the obvious results in the win-loss column.

“You are looking at mental make-up and can they turn the page after goals, body language,'' Cooper said. “Ultimately, you're starting to pick one over the other. Naturally, winning is a big factor in that, but I think some of those intangibles will eventually push one guy past the other.

“But maybe not; maybe they just play 41 games each and both are unreal for us. That's the best scenario, and that would be great. But you would hope that one guy would push the other and one guy would take the reins.''

Former Lightning head coach Terry Crisp, who won a Stanley Cup in Calgary in 1989 and currently serves as a color commentator for Nashville, said there are potential pitfalls down the tandem path.

“You want them both playing,” Crisp said, “but if I say to (Bishop) take the next three games and Anders has got the next three, what happens if he has three shutouts in a row? Now what do I do? I gave my word to the next guy coming in, so it's a big-time balancing act for the coach. And you better be careful what you promise, because you better live up to it.''

Recent history shows teams do not have to rely on one player for regular-season success. When Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013, the Blackhawks did not have a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender in the regular season. There were questions as to who would start in the postseason — in 2010 it was Antti Niemi over Cristobal Huet and last season Corey Crawford over Ray Emery.

But no matter how things shake out for Tampa Bay's net tandem, Cooper has one basic philosophy in regards to the goaltending.

“What I like to look for from our goaltenders is, 'Don't come in here and lose the game,' '' he said. “Some nights, we're going to score goals or may not need a goaltender as much. Other nights, we might have a lifeline out there and please save us.''

Too often in the past two seasons, however, leaky play in net resulted in sunk seasons.

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