Ben Bishop will take the ice for the first time in over three weeks when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Buffalo Sabres tonight at AMALIE Arena (7:30 p.m. puck drop).
Bishop has been sidelined since suffering a lower-body injury in the first period of the Bolts' 4-1 win over Detroit on December 20. Bishop was supposed to miss three to four weeks, his return tonight coming at the short end of the timeline.
Last week, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said he hoped to have Bishop back for the Bolts' California road trip, which starts January 16.
Instead, it looks like the Lightning will get a bit of good injury news, a welcome departure from what has been the norm this season.
"It's a little bit ahead of schedule, nothing crazy," Bishop said. "I mean, we're talking about four or five days. It's been three weeks on Tuesday. We've got a good training staff so obviously that helps and get back and play a game or two before the California trip. Obviously, it's better than coming back later I guess."
Video: Bishop on quick recovery from injury
Bishop missed nine games in all. In his place, Andrei Vasilevskiy started every game, going 3-5-1 with a .876 save percentage, his numbers taking a dip as the Lightning allowed 22 goals in their last four games.
"Vasy, I'd be hard pressed not to say he was, on most of those nights, our best player," Cooper said. "We had some tough stretches as a team. Not to sit here and say Vasy's game was perfect. I think he'd be the first one to say it wasn't. A lot of nights, he had to stand on his head for us. You want your goaltender to give your team a chance to win the hockey game, and he would do that. You'd sit there and say we gave up five, this game five, this game five. Well, those five weren't Vasilevskiy's fault. That was the guys ahead of him.
"What I liked, he got nine games in a row. He got to get his feet wet of feeling what being a starting goaltender was like, and all you can do is build on that experience. So I think it was good for him."
With Bishop back in net, the Lightning gain, in essence, another defenseman in the back, the veteran goalie's ability to play the puck and distribute one of his greatest assets.
"He's one of, most likely the best in the business with puck handling," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "It always helps, for sure. I wouldn't say it takes the pressure off in any means, but you trust that he makes the right play and it's all about communication. If we make the right read for him on the ice, he'll make the pass no problem. He's as good as me passing the puck. He's terrific like that."
BACK IN ACTION: The Lightning just completed a rare, three-day break in the 2016-17 schedule, which was needed considering they're on a season-long-tying four-game losing skid.
After taking Monday off following a weekend back-to-back set in Pennsylvania, the Bolts had two practice sessions Tuesday and another practice Wednesday, giving them ample time to work to correct some of the issues that have been plaguing them of late.
Video: Stralman on the Bolts' overall defensive effort
"We had a couple good days practicing here, and we worked on a lot of stuff," Stralman said. "We obviously want to put that into our game more than we have been as of late. Our starts, another issue that's been there the whole season basically, is something we're focusing on. You just want to see that in the games right now.
"You want to see signs of we're moving the right way, and I think these last couple days have been good in that regard."
Issues on the back line have been well-documented during the Lightning's recent slump. In the last four games, the Bolts have been outscored a combined 22-9.
"It's more about the mindset than anything and the determination," Stralman said. "Defense is a lot of hard work. That's really the bottom line of what it is. It doesn't necessarily take a lot of skill. Everybody has to be on the same page obviously and pull their load, but it's about attitude, really, more than anything."
Consistency, too, has been a major problem for the Lightning of late. In weekend losses at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Bolts followed a strong period with two subpar periods and were outscored 6-2 in the second and 4-1 in the third.
"You don't want to have a good 20 (minutes), bad 20, good 20, so it's about being more consistent with whoever's in the lineup, just finding a way to get it done," Bishop said. "This time of the year, where we are, it doesn't matter how you get a win. If they're pretty or ugly, it doesn't matter. We've just got to find a way to get points."
ICE CHIPS: Braydon Coburn (upper-body injury) and Brian Boyle (lower-body injury) will both be game-time decisions for tonight according to Cooper. Boyle has yet to play in 2017…Nikita Kucherov (84 career goals) can pass Rob Zamuner and take sole possession of 10th place on Tampa Bay's all-time goals list with one more goal…Jonathan Drouin has 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists) through 17 games in December and January combined after recording just seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) through 17 games in October and November combined…The Lightning are 4-3-0 in the first game of a back-to-back set this season. The Bolts are playing the second set of a stretch of three back-to-back sets in 11 days…Buffalo has won three of its last four games and has picked up points in all four. The Sabres haven't had a five-game point streak since March 2012.