A big void in the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup could be erased quicker than expected the team found out on Wednesday.
"Big" Ben Bishop was a full participant in Lightning practice for the second-consecutive day, signaling the veteran goaltender may be ready to return to action relatively soon.
When Bishop went down with a lower-body injury in a 4-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on December 20, the initial prognosis had him missing three to four weeks.
That timeline would have brought him back either this week or next when the Lightning kick off a six-game road trip in California.
Last week, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper suggested Bishop might be able to return in one of the California games. But now it seems Bishop may be ready even earlier.
After Wednesday's hour-long practice session at AMALIE Arena, Bishop declared himself able to play. Whether he does or not remains to be seen.
"Couple good practices (yesterday and today), so I'm ready to get back at it," he said.
Bishop missed Tampa Bay's last nine games, and the Lightning went 3-5-1 in his absence.
"It's never fun having to sit out and watch," Bishop said. "I just try to get better, kind of focus on the challenge at hand, try to get healthy again. Like I said, kind of work back to where we are today and now it's kind of an exciting time again to get back on the ice."
Video: Bishop on being a full participant in practice
Bishop is 9-10-2 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .907 save percentage in 2016-17, a year after finishing as the runner-up to Washington's Braden Holtby for the Vezina Trophy. The 6-foot-7 netminder set the Lightning franchise record for goalie games played (207) earlier this season on November 17 at Buffalo and established a new franchise mark for all-time saves in the season opener versus Detroit on October 13.
Bishop's return should help out a Bolts blue line that has allowed 22 goals over the last four games. Bishop is arguably the best goalie in the league at playing the puck and starting the breakout, which would take some of the pressure off a beleaguered group of Lightning defensemen.
"You're talking a guy who handles the puck like a defenseman back there," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "Listen, the kid (Andrei Vasilevskiy), give him so much credit. We couldn't have played any worse in front of him in some of those games. We couldn't have, and he gave us a chance in almost every game. He battles so hard. He works so hard. He's such a great kid, and he's a great young goaltender. It's unfortunate for him that we played as poorly as we did when he was in there. It's great to see Bish is coming back, but, man, we've got to play a whole lot better in front of him too. We can't keep playing the way we're playing regardless of who's in our net. Is it great to have Bish back? Absolutely, he's a great goaltender as well and his puck handling helps us, there's no question. But, the same thing, we've got to play better in front of him than we have."
Bishop could return as early as Thursday when the Lightning host the Buffalo Sabres at AMALIE Arena and attempt to snap a four-game losing skid, tied for their longest of the season. Or it could come Friday when the Lightning will retire Martin St. Louis's No. 26 in a game against the Eastern Conference-leading Columbus Blue Jackets.
When he does get back, Bishop said it might take him a few minutes to shake some of the rust off from missing nearly a month of the season.
"There obviously is going to be a slight adjustment period," he said. "That first period, you kind of have to get used to the rushes again, the way they come at you in a game. I'm not really worried about the cardio side of it. I feel pretty good. I'm in good shape, so it's more just kind of adapting to the game. It takes maybe a period to kind of get your timing down."