TAMPA, Fla. — He may not always make his job look pretty, but Ben Bishop knows the dirty work in front of the net is no beauty pageant. Sprawling, stretching, contorting all of his 6-foot-7, 214 pounds into a pretzel — whatever does the trick to turn back the puck and keep opponents searching.
Thursday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s emerging goalie offered more proof why a team that once suffered from goal-tending issues just might have found its answer. Actually, he offered 25 reasons, as in the number of saves he earned in a 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
How’s this for a start? He’s 5-0 with 132 saves in 140 tries, and he hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a single game. His .943 save percentage ranks ninth in the league, a figure that would become his career-high since he entered the NHL with the St. Louis Blues in the 2008-09 season if he maintains this pace.
Not pretty? No problem, just results.
“It’s not always going to be pretty,” Bishop said Thursday. “But as long as it doesn’t go in the net, right?”
Hey, whatever works. Bishop’s aerobics act in the second period Thursday was particularly impressive, when the Lightning were outshot 13-7. Thanks to their brick wall, however, the Bolts escaped into the dressing room ahead 1-0, with reason to think a third victory of this season-long seven-game homestand was possible.
Yes, this was no a spotless night, and it’s a testament to how difficult life between the pipes can be, even for a goalie willing to get down and dirty. Wild center Mikko Koivu slipped the puck past Bishop’s left shoulder 11:05 into the third period — a fine shot that had some thinking overtime was inevitable.
But the Bolts’ quick-strike offense had other plans, preserving Bishop’s perfect mark. Act One: Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos took care of the tie with a fastbreak goal 14:56 into the third. Act Two: Defenseman Sami Salo added an empty-net score less than five minutes later.
Not pretty? Just do the job.
“He has given us a chance every time he has played,” Lightning captain Marty St. Louis said of Bishop. “He has helped us in some of the surges that the teams bring on us. He helps us hang in there. We know we have the offense to go get goals. We can’t try to win a game 5-4 all the time. We have to win those grinder kind of games. Tonight was one of those. I’m glad that we won that kind of game.”
Grinder games fit Bishop well, because he’s a gritty presence himself. Remember, he came to Tampa Bay in a trade last April that cost the Lightning a young winger, Cory Conacher, and a fourth-round pick. Twelve days later, Bishop signed a two-year extension, and the 26-year-old entered this season with Anders Lindback, 25, as Tampa Bay’s top options at goalie.
So far, Bishop owns the edge. Lindback is 0-2, with eight goals allowed in 51 attempts. When asked if Bishop had exceeded his expectations, Lightning coach Jon Cooper chose to reserve judgment, citing the fact that the young player has room to grow with fewer than 50 NHL starts to his name (he has 43 overall and 14 with Tampa Bay).
“It’s a great sign,” Cooper said. “Again, it’s early. But he gives us a chance to win the game every single night. That’s what you want in your goaltender… Just give us a chance to win every night. That’s what you need from your guy. He’s done just that.”
Not pretty? Just do enough.
“I knew what he was capable of,” Lightning defenseman Matt Carle said. “He’s still a pretty young guy and hasn’t played that many games, so it’s good to see him keep his confidence early on. Hopefully, he’ll run with it.”
His first five starts are a fine start in the sprint, and Bishop has the right perspective to keep himself motivated but grounded. When asked if he anticipated this start, he said, “Yeah, you’ve got to believe in yourself.” When asked if each victory builds momentum for himself, he said, “No, it’s the team. It’s not just me. Those guys are the ones scoring.”
True, but he’s the one cleaning the garbage in front of the net. There are no style points in hockey, only bruises and bottom lines, and in that way, Bishop has been a beauty so far.
“As long as you can keep your team in there and give them a chance,” he said, “you’ll be happy.”