In each of the last two seasons, goalie Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning has started over 60 games for the team. During this same time span, Bishop has won over 30 games in each season. During last Saturday’s victory over the Buffalo Sabres, Bishop ran his career win total to 84 victories surpassing Nikolai Khabibulin as the all-time franchise leader in this category.
There is no question that his performance in the team’s playoff run last spring, began to establish Bishop as one of the league’s best. Recording two shutouts on the road in must win situations will do that.
The issue at hand is that two seasons ago playing 63 games and netting 37 wins, Bishop led the team to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. He would have played more games if not for an elbow injury as the team was playing out the string of the regular season which meant Bishop missed the playoffs altogether. The team was abruptly swept by the Montreal Canadiens despite owning home ice in that series.
Okay, so Big Ben gets hurt, team gets swept, chalk it up to bad luck. Moving on to last season, Bishop plays 62 games, winning 40 of those and has something to prove in the post-season. For all intents and purposes, Bishop comes through. Except for the bone-headed play in Game 5 when he and Victor Hedman got their signals crossed, not to mention their legs tangled which led to an empty netter by Patrick Sharp, Bishop was on fire in the post-season until he injured his groin in the Stanley Cup Final.
So, in these last two seasons which saw him play over 125 regular season games, winning 77 of them, Bishop suffered an injury either right before or during the playoffs. Now, is that just a coincidence or does it have anything to do with him being overworked during the regular season? Chicken or the egg?
Part of the problem clearly is the backup. Not the current one, Kevin Poulin has yet to see a solitary minute of ice time thus far this season. It is early and the team has only had one back to back game so far but over the next two weeks it will have two back to backs and the team ought to see if Poulin can handle the backup role.
The original plan was to have 21 year-old sensation, Andrei Vasilevskiy as the backup to Bishop. After undergoing emergency surgery at the beginning of September to remove a blood clot from his left collarbone, Vasy is looking to rejoin the team towards the end of November.
With only 50 games in parts of three seasons in the NHL, it is safe to say that Poulin is basically untested. Over the last two years the backup goalie to Bishop did not have that stigma but rather faced a lack of confidence from the organization as well as the fan base because of sub-par performances. Two years ago it was Anders Lindback and last year it was Evgeni Nabokov.
Neither of these NHL veterans played well enough for coach, Jon Cooper to put them in without a second thought. There were probably multiple thoughts from Cooper when penciling in a goalie’s name other than Bishop during his tenure as coach.
Six games into this new season, Bishop has been on the ice the entire time. Now the team heads off for a four game road trip that sees them up against half of the Western Conference playoff teams from last season. Nashville, then Winnipeg and Chicago on consecutive nights before ending the trip in St. Louis.
A split of these four games would be great for the Lightning but it will be a huge undertaking. Each of these opponents play in buildings that are home team friendly. Each of these teams have something to prove to the reigning Eastern Conference Champions. So far this season, Nashville and Winnipeg have the same number of points (8) as the Lightning, St. Louis has two more points than Tampa. Only the Blackhawks have less points than the Lightning this season with six, two less than the Lightning currently have.
If Bishop has to man the pipes for all four games in the next seven days, it could be a rough deal for him and his team. Conventional wisdom in the NHL is that on the road you want to get one more point that the number of games you play on the trip. Following that logic, the Lightning need to gain five points in these four games.
But just where do they do that? Nashville? St. Louis? The Madhouse on Madison? If Bishop plays all four games, it will begin to take a physical toll on him. Best case scenario is to hope you come out with a split of these four games. Worse case for Tampa would be to have Bishop between the pipes for all four games and not earn a single victory. Now the team is overusing him without any benefit in terms of wins or points.
There are no must games in October in the NHL. Just for the Lightning and just for the next week, that adage changes because these next four games are critical for last year’s Stanley Cup runner-ups. They cannot afford to lose all four games, so at least one of these is a must-win. To split the four, that adds another must-win in there. To have a winning record in this early but important road trip, that makes three must-win games.
By the time the team comes back to the friendly confines of Amalie Arena on October 29th against the Colorado Avalanche, we will learn a lot about this team. We will know how this young and talented team handles the adversary of playing four meaningful games against arguably four of the toughest opponents in the Western Conference in the span of seven days.
They may have to face this challenge without the benefit of giving their overused and perhaps overwrought goalie, Ben Bishop any time off that he so deservedly needs.