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Pregame Notebook: Ben Bishop ready for season opener

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Late in the third period against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop was under heavy pressure, the Stars firing a steady barrage of shots toward the Bolts goal.

Bishop was nearing the end of his first full, 60-minute shift in nearly six months.

The game had long been decided, the Lightning ahead 5-1 following third period goals from Cedric Paquette and Brett Connolly.

The rink at the American Airlines Center was unusually warm, the Texas humidity somehow seeping inside the arena.

The Stars had a sizable contingent of their NHL stars and veterans playing.

Just a few hours earlier, Bishop had squeezed his 6-foot-7 frame into an airplane seat for the flight from Fort Myers to Dallas.

And yet, Bishop never buckled under the pressure, despite a litany of factors against him.

The 27-year-old netminder saved 21 of 22 shots, including all seven attempts in the third period to shut down a highly-potent Stars team averaging four goals a game in the preseason before Tuesday. 

The fact that Bishop was as dominant finishing the game as he was at the start speaks to the amount of conditioning work he put in during the offseason in an attempt to be ready to start the 2014-15 season.

“That was the best, for me, he’s played all preseason,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “…He was on his game.”

In January, Bishop injured his right wrist and played the second half of the season with a special pad and less than 100 percent. Following the season, Bishop had surgery to repair the wrist, and there was some concern the 2005 third-round draft pick might not be ready for the 2014-15 regular season.

Bishop has said repeatedly during Lightning training camp the wrist is improving daily and he will be in the starting lineup -- provided he’s selected by Cooper -- when the Lightning open Thursday, October 9, against the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena.

The start on Opening Night would be the first in Bishop’s six-year NHL career.

“Every practice is like a rehab session, so (the wrist) is getting stronger,” Bishop said. “It feels better as camp’s gone on, so just hoping to get stronger and better.”

Conditioning, however, was Bishop’s greatest concern entering 2014-15. After getting a full game Tuesday and likely another Saturday in the Bolts’ final preseason game against the Panthers, Bishop is confident he’s ready for the rigors of a full season.

“It’s nice to get into a full game,” Bishop said. “(Dallas) had a pretty good team too…It’s one more step…It’s always nice to get a win no matter how it is, but just to win the game, it felt good.”

A dislocated left elbow late last season forced a beat-up Bishop to miss the Lightning’s Eastern Conference First Round matchup with the Montreal Canadiens.

The multiple injuries ended a breakout season for Bishop, who set career highs with 37 wins, a 2.23 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and five shutouts. He was also a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL. 

On Tuesday, Bishop was back to his old self, routinely coming out of the net to handle the puck and providing the impetus for another Lightning victory.

“I think that was the biggest thing for me was his ability to once again play the puck [as opposed to] say the last half of the year last year, especially when he was all banged up,” Cooper said. “What was a strength became a weakness, and it’s great to see that he has that confidence again.”

NABOKOV BRINGS EXPERIENCE, CHARACTER

Evgeni Nabokov, who will start and play the full game in goal Thursday against the Panthers in Sunrise, brings much more than experience and the ability to spell Bishop, according to Cooper. Nabokov, a 13-year NHL veteran who spent the last three seasons as the starter for the New York Islanders, can be a positive influence on Bishop and the rest of the team as well as a leader on the club.

“I think he fills much more than coming in and playing 20-plus games or whatever we hope he can play,” Cooper said. “You want him to be a veteran guy that’s been there before and help Ben. Ben’s been a full-timer in the NHL for one year, and he needs to grow as well and to have a guy like (Nabokov) around, in the short time I’ve gotten to know him, he’s unreal.”

Nabokov has an easy-going demeanor others gravitate toward. He’s also a jokester who keeps things loose in the locker room.

“He’s a lot of fun to be around,” Cooper said. “It’s one of those things where I don’t think, if things bother him, he doesn’t show it.”

FIVE-YEAR PLAN

Cooper, entering his fifth season in the Lightning organization, said the biggest difference from now to when he started is the continuity throughout the team and its AHL affiliate in Syracuse.

“Four-plus years ago, there would be complete overhauls on the American League team, and you’re not seeing that now,” Cooper said. “…I guess the prospects are getting better and the prospects are filtering in to this team.”

The changeover that would take place year to year in seasons past is no longer happening.

“You’re kind of with your group and there’s tweaks here and there of course, but I think as you keep moving forward, you’re going to see less and less guys getting moved in and out,” Cooper said.

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