Another setback will test Lightning’s mettle as playoffs approach

Backup goalie Anders Lindback played well in substitution Tuesday night, and now the Lightning will lean on him as the regular season comes to a close.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — Now there’s something else. Maybe it will turn out to be a small thing. Maybe not. Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper was vague in his assessment of Ben Bishop’s upper-body injury Wednesday. Bishop could return in the first round of the playoffs, but that "could" comes with a heavy shade of gray.

One thing was clear: This is something else to deal with. Another question mark, more doubt, one more reason to say, "Hey, how much more can the Lightning take?"

That’s not a question you want asked with three games left in the regular season. It’s too late.

"We’re still in the process of figuring things out with him," Cooper said. "We’re better off re-evaluating this early next week, just to see where he’s at. It’s kind of a freak thing that happened. … I wouldn’t rule him out (for the first round). I’m not sitting here saying he will, but I’m not saying he won’t."

This looked no good. This looked serious. The Lightning should hope that it’s less bleak than it appeared.

This much we know: Bishop needed help off the ice at Tampa Bay Times Forum from a trainer and defenseman Eric Brewer 5:43 into the first period of a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. He disappeared into a tunnel, and he was never seen the rest of the night. This happened after he tried to make a diving glove save and landed awkwardly on his left side.

Bishop out

It looked like the shot was trailing far high and wide, so it’s curious Bishop felt the urge to make an acrobatic play. But it happened. The deed’s done. Tampa Bay’s hope for a long postseason stay rests on his ability to return.

Officially, the Lightning are calling it an upper-body injury, with no structural damage found. Unofficially, their Stanley Cup aspirations are teetering on a high wire.

Sure, reserve goaltender Anders Lindback played well with 25 saves Tuesday night, and the team has recalled Kristers Gudlevskis from Syracuse. But Bishop has received 63 starts this season for a reason. He’s the undisputed Answer in net. Tampa Bay would never be in a position to play after April 13 without him.

It’s always something.

Resilience builds strength, and the Lightning have earned plenty of both this wild winter. But even they must have thought, "Seriously, something else?" when Bishop wobbled toward the tunnel.

There were injuries to major faces like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, Sami Salo and Valtteri Filppula. There was the Marty St. Louis drama. There was St. Louis’ trade.

Cooper’s team would be forgiven if it screamed "Uncle" after all this pain.

Digging deeper

"It’s obviously not ideal that we get this many injuries," Hedman said Tuesday. "But like I said before, we don’t know how long he’s going to be out. But we have to keep plugging away — a few more games before the fun starts."

That’s what makes this Bishop situation so potentially serious. Unlike the previous injuries and the St. Louis trade, there’s no time to build a new normal. The playoffs are almost here, peeking around the corner. The Lightning have done a marvelous job adjusting to new challenges, new situations, new hurdles. That will become their season’s legacy.

But the postseason is an unforgiving beast. It’s a knock-down, drag-out, black-and-blue street fight with all sticks needed to help in the cause. If the Lightning enter without their Big Ben security blanket, look out. They need as much continuity as possible.

It’s always something.

"It’s part of the game," said Lightning winger Ondrej Palat, who had two goals Tuesday. "I don’t know how Bish (is). We’ll see later."

The timing of the injury couldn’t be more unfortunate. By Tuesday, Bishop’s playing time had become a prickly topic for Cooper. He answered question after question about it. He defended his use of the goaltender. He seemed baffled that the debate had become a narrative.

The doubts are justified, but you can’t blame Cooper for trying to place his team in a position to win. Bishop’s 37 victories rank fourth in the NHL. His .924 save percentage ranks sixth. His 2.23 goals-against average ranks ninth. Bishop’s injury could have happened on any night this season, October through April. That’s what makes this so cruel.

It’s always something.

It’s always a chance to reveal heart too.

The Lightning showed something in blanking the Maple Leafs. They ousted Toronto from playoff consideration in the process. They were confused in losses to the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars last Thursday and Saturday. The performance Tuesday was more fitting of their skill.

They never folded after Bishop left. They were opportunistic. They never made silly errors. They’ll need to reproduce the effort again and again, with or without the big guy in the crease.

Maybe his injury will become a small thing, maybe something more. But the Lightning can’t let this potential obstacle derail them now.

That’s easier said than done. But it must be done, bottom line. Their season will end in the playoffs, quickly, with an awkward tone otherwise.

It’s always something.

It’s always a chance to answer too.

The time has come again. The Lightning know the feeling well.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.