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Kennedy: As Stanley Cup Playoffs hit stretch run, best bet is on Ben Bishop

by Paul Kennedy / Tampa Bay Lightning

American Pharaoh is a three-year-old Kentucky Derby champion.

He is also a hockey stud.

Galloping thru NHL challengers, goaltender Ben Bishop has posted 48 wins this year, eight coming in two rounds against playoff thoroughbreds Detroit and Montreal.

Thirty-five Stanley Cups between the pair.

Four goalies won 40 or more games during the regular season. Masked men named Carey Price, Braden Holtby, Pekka Rinne and oh, yes, Bishop. Only one of that quartet is still guarding a blue crease. Or stacking his pads. Or flashing a huge white glove. Or spearing a screener.

It's the Denver-born, 6-foot-7 netminder standing as tall as an NBA power forward with a passion for Major League Baseball and a penchant for big-game heroics in his chosen profession of spoiling goal scorers' dreams.

Not that the rest of the NHL has truly taken notice of Bishop or a Lightning team that has crashed the postseason party. Three years ago the league realigned, forcing Bolts owner Jeff Vinik into a disadvantageous geographical conference with his closest out-of-state rival based in (wait for it) New England.

Look at a map.

Bolts' Boyle, Stralman, Callahan return to old stomping ground vs. Rangers

Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and Ryan Callahan will try to downplay their connections to the New York Rangers. They'll try to shift the attention elsewhere before the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals between their old team and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a matchup that pits the past against the present for them and others.

Tampa Bay and its fellow Floridians in the Panthers were gerrymandered, deemed genteel opponents and wonderful cold-weather respites for the likes of Atlantic Division members Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto (who at last report are soon to enter the 49th season of the Leaf Rebuilding Plan).

All this while a first-time general manager was committing sabotage, in a singular stroke changing the fortunes of the entire Atlantic seaboard. Steve Yzerman acquired the Senators third-string goaltender and dressed him for success in Lightning blue.

That move -- by a man who knows everything about winning -- is clearly the most significant trade in the Eastern Conference in recent memory. Perhaps since Patrick Roy left the Habs for Colorado, if that's recent. But such discussion leads us into the Western Conference which is an entirely different Zamboni.

To hear his latest frustrated foes from Quebec tell it, Bishop's been sitting on a horseshoe ever since his Bay Area arrival. But the puck don't lie, and across the past two seasons, Bishop has won 88 games. The only netminder in the NHL's entire stable of puck stoppers with greater success in that same span -- East, West, North, South, Smythe, Adams, or Norris -- is Price, with 92 victories.

Four more wins in 13 additional starts. Mais oui, he's now golfing.

As Bishop consistently outplayed Price during the regular season, he became the first goaltender since Hall of Famer Glen Hall in 1961 with Cup Champion Chicago to defeat Montreal nine times in one year. Not since the days of the Original Six had a goalie or a rival handled the Habs so rudely.

Winning nine of 11, including the just-concluded second-round playoff pairing, is not reflective of a rivalry. It does offer the qualities of a relationship between a hammer and a nail.

Yet it is Price who is the consensus Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award favorite. We are told he will also win the Vezina as the game's best netminder. Your Uncle Stan may receive a vote. Bishop wasn't even a finalist.

May 6, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan (24) works out prior to game three of the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Lightning's Callahan back on ice, says he's day-to-day after appendectomy

Ryan Callahan didn't stay off the ice long. The Tampa Bay Lightning winger was a participant in his team's practice on Thursday morning, before the Lightning flew to Newark, New Jersey, later in the afternoon to begin prep for Game 1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Now to the matter of the Eastern Conference Final, and Tampa Bay's date with destiny in Madison Square Garden. Henrik Lundqvist owns 84 wins over a two year span -- one less than Big Ben's -- having missed most of February and March due to injury. He will be the gentleman dressed in goaltender equipment 200 feet at the opposite end of the rink who, much like the Family Wallenda, performs at his brilliant best while balancing on the high wire of Game 7 winner-take-all roulette.

New York dispatched the Caps to capture a league record seventh consecutive Game 7. Alexander Ovechkin and Washington owned a 3-games-to-1 advantage and never won game four.

The reason was Lundqvist, the biggest star in the World's Most Famous Arena.

However, Tampa Bay pounded the Swede throughout the past holiday season. In November and December the Bolts enjoyed a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to the Rangers net, scoring 14 times against King Henrik in sweeping all three meetings. His goals against average of 4.74 probably won't be trumpeted in bright lights of Broadway. Bishop, by contrast, allowed seven tallies on 70 shots, and posted a 2.34 report card. More than satisfactory.

Similar results and the Rangers will become the third consecutive Original Six franchise that Bishop will have conquered in these playoffs.

There are those who will say the regular season has minimal impact upon the chase for the chalice. Except that we do keep score. And confidence grows.

In this season's on-ice Run for the Roses, against the league's remaining field featuring New York as well as Western contenders Chicago and Anaheim, the Bolts finished with a near perfect 6-0-1 track record. Corey Crawford and the Blackhawks earning a point in a shootout win before Bishop bounced back and shut them out in the Windy City. The Ducks were basted by Ben twice.

So here we are. An American Pharaoh and a Swedish King playing for an invitation to the blue grass stakes of the Stanley Cup Final. This series will come down to goaltending. The Bolts with Ben are groomed and tacked to win it all.

It's now post time.

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