Goalie Ben Bishop is making an impact in his first full season as a starting goalie in the National Hockey League.
Bishop, a former University of Maine standout, set the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise record for wins with his 31st in a 23-save 3-0 victory over New Jersey last Saturday. He has won three more games since.
The 6-foot-7, 215-pound Bishop, who left Maine after the 2007-08 season, had never previously played more than 22 NHL games in a season. He split 22 between Ottawa (13) and Tampa Bay (9) a year ago after the Senators sent him to Tampa Bay for center Cory Conacher at the trade deadline.
Bishop still had to battle for the starting job at the outset of the season and won it by posting 13 victories in his first 15 starts.
He said by winning the job he has relieved the pressure he used to have when he was a backup.
“When you’re a backup, every game you play is like a tryout. Now I can just focus on my game, relax and play,” said the 27-year-old Bishop. “It’s nice not to have to worry about when I’m going to get my next start.”
Bishop is ranked in the top six in the league in virtually every category.
He is tied for second in wins with 34 (34-11-6) and in shutouts with five. He is fifth in save percentage (.927), saves (1,446) and minutes played (3,156:24). His 2.17 goals-against average is good for sixth.
He has stopped 28 of 36 attempts in shootouts for a .778 save percentage which is third best among goalies who have faced 20 or more shots..
“I use my size to my advantage [in shootouts]. They don’t see much to shoot at. I try to intimidate the shooters,” said Bishop on Friday.
Bishop said it has been a good year.
“It’s rewarding and it’s nice to finally have the opportunity to show what you can do. Any time you set a record, it’s something special,” he said. “It’s a tribute to our team. We have a good team. I’m just a little part of the wins. Hopefully we can add to that list.”
The Lightning were in second place in the Atlantic Division entering the weekend.
Bishop said he benefited considerably from making several consecutive starts in Ottawa a year ago when starting goalie Craig Anderson was injured.
This season, Bishop said he has learned “how to play at a high level every night” and has continued to gain a better knowledge of opposing shooters.
“Learning the players and their tendencies is a big thing,” he said. “And you need to read the play in front of you and anticipate.”
Lightning defenseman and former UMass star Mike Kostka told the Tampa Bay Times that “on top of making saves he’s supposed to make, [Bishop] steals a few that maybe he shouldn’t. That gives us all the confidence in the world to play in front of him.”
Bishop hasn’t been surprised by his success although he didn’t anticipate breaking a franchise record.
“I’ve been getting better every year and I knew if I got the opportunity, I could do well. I thought I would have a good season but I couldn’t tell you I thought I would win this many games,” he said.
Bishop was considered for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team but lost out to Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller and former UMaine player Jimmy Howard.
“It was disappointing. I wanted to be there,” said Bishop. “I thought I put myself in position and had a good chance.
“But it was just one of those things. They’re all tremendous goalies,” said Bishop. “I didn’t dwell on it too much. I didn’t let it bother me. Hopefully, I’ll make something of a name for myself [for future Olympic consideration].”
Bishop led the Black Bears to their last Frozen Four appearance in 2007 and got the chance to play in his native St. Louis against eventual national champ Michigan State in the semis.
He concluded his three years at Maine with 2,399 saves, second most in school history, and his 54 wins were fifth best.
“I play the same style I played at Maine although I’m quite a bit stronger now,” said Bishop who considers his height an advantage. “I still talk to [former Maine assistant Grant Standbrook].
“He still keeps me in line,” chuckled Bishop who loves to play the puck as he did at Maine.
Bishop said Standbrook deserves a lot of credit for his development.
“He worked with me on my skating a lot. That’s what helps me with my size,” said Bishop. “Grant used to have a lot of funny drills. You wondered why he had you do them but now I see how valuable they were.”
Bishop’s former Maine teammate, Lightning right wing Teddy Purcell, is the team’s fifth-leading scorer (12 goals, 28 assists).
“He’s the same old Teddy. He is always setting someone up,” said Bishop.