The last time Tampa Bay Lightning fans saw goaltender Ben Bishop in a game, he was being stretchered off the ice during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final in Pittsburgh.
The end of Bishop’s season was as abrupt as it was untimely. The 29-year-old was coming off arguably his finest season in the NHL. Bishop led all league netminders and tied a Lightning all-time record in 2015-16 with a 2.06 goals-against average. His .926 save percentage and six shutouts both ranked second in the league, and he finished as the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy given to the league’s best goalie behind Washington’s Braden Holtby.
The Lightning were forced to play the rest of the ECF with backup Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, and although the second-year-pro acquitted himself well during the following six-and-a-half games and nearly backstopped the Bolts to their second-straight Stanley Cup Final, Tampa Bay fell to the eventual Cup champion Penguins, losing 2-1 in Game 7 in Pittsburgh.
Bishop was forced to spend the offseason rehabbing the ankle injury that robbed him of completing the brilliant year he put together in his third full season with the Bolts.
Now, Bishop is eager to show he’s back to 100 percent health and ready to pick up in 2016-17 where he left off last season.
He’ll get an earlier-than-usual chance to test his mended appendage ahead of the upcoming NHL season at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, where Bishop is one of three goaltenders selected to play for Team USA. The Americans opened training camp in Columbus, Ohio on Monday.
“I feel good,” Bishop said. “I’ve been doing rehab most of the summer, still doing it right now, getting everything stronger. Everything feels good.”
Bishop will be thrown into the fire almost immediately as Team USA begins its pretournament exhibition schedule in Columbus on Friday, September 9, against Team Canada, the odds-on favorite to win the two-week, eight-team international tournament. The two teams will play again a day later in Ottawa. Barring any unforeseen setbacks, Bishop will see action in one or both of those contests.
In a typical preseason, Bishop would be able to ease into the exhibition schedule.
But there are bragging rights at stake whenever USA and Canada face one another, even in a “friendly” competition.
“It definitely gets you amped right away, going up against someone like Team Canada,” Bishop said. “You’re going from zero to 100, whereas during NHL training camp, there’s maybe a little bit of a slower progression.”
Team Sweden, which features Lightning defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, will kick off the pretournament schedule Thursday at noon against Team Finland, who named Valtteri Filppula an alternate captain on Monday. Thirty minutes later, six Lightning players will take the ice as Team Czech Republic (Ondrej Palat, Andrej Sustr) faces Team Russia (Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov, Vladislav Namestnikov).
Pretournament exhibition games will run from September 8-14.
“Getting to compete with your national team and playing with and against the best players is a big honor,” said Hedman, who trained with his hometown team Modo in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, for a couple weeks in preparation for the competition before joining Team Sweden in Gothenburg for training camp.
“I think we have a deep team. Our goalies and back end are really good. Our forwards are really skilled with good IQ and can make plays out of nothing.”
The Lightning will have 12 players competing in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, more than any other team in the NHL (Ryan Callahan would have been the 13th but had to pull out after having offseason hip surgery). Additionally, Bolts head coach Jon Cooper will serve as an assistant coach for Team North America.
Seven of the eight teams in the competition have a Lightning player on the roster, which means no matter what teams are scheduled to play, chances are fans will get an opportunity to see a Tampa Bay player or two skate ahead of the 2016-17 NHL season.
The World Cup of Hockey 2016 starts Saturday, September 17, with group play. The tournament concludes with a best-of-three finals starting September 27.
All tournament games will be played at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
“Anytime you get to represent your country, it’s a really big honor,” Bishop said. “I’m looking forward to putting on the USA jersey. It’s going to be special. Anytime you can play against the best of the best, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Lightning players have been in a lot of hockey games over the past couple seasons after reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and advancing to the ECF last season. With another lengthy playoff run anticipated this season, the World Cup could be seen as a burden, the physically-taxing competition exhausting players before the grind of the NHL regular season.
Both Hedman and Bishop, however, don’t think overuse will be an issue.
“It’s a good thing,” Bishop said. “If you’re playing a lot of hockey, that means you’re doing something right.”
“You just have to make sure you’re professional when you’re not playing games, getting more sleep, training properly,” added Hedman. “It’s not a concern to play hockey. It’s a lot of fun. You want to play a lot of games. I’m very excited about the tournament and then coming down to Tampa and getting started with the Lightning.”
The 12 Lightning players attending the World Cup should be in midseason form when they join Tampa Bay for training camp following the competition.
The Lightning open the NHL regular season on October 13 versus the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun this year I think,” Hedman, asked if he’s ready for the start of the NHL season, responded. “I love Tampa. We’re going to be a year older with more experience from the playoff runs we’ve had the last few years. I can’t wait.”
Tampa Bay players competing at the World Cup of Hockey 2016
Steven Stamkos - Canada
Ben Bishop - USA
Ondrej Palat - Czech Republic
Andrej Sustr - Czech Republic
Valtteri Filppula - Finland
Andrei Vasilevskiy - Russia
Nikita Nesterov - Russia
Nikita Kucherov - Russia
Vladislav Namestnikov - Russia
Victor Hedman - Sweden
Anton Stralman - Sweden
Jonathan Drouin - North America
Ryan Callahan - USA (injured)
Jon Cooper - North America (assistant coach)
World Cup of Hockey 2016 groups
World Cup of Hockey 2016 schedule
Preliminary round (round robin), September 17-22
Single elimination semifinals, Sept. 24 and 25 (top two teams from each group advance to semis)
Final (best of three), Sept. 27, 29 and Oct. 1 (if necessary)