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Round 1

Bishop leads Stars into playoffs coming off strong season

Goalie had best goals-against average, save percentage of NHL career

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DALLAS -- The biggest reason the Dallas Stars could be a dark horse in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Ben Bishop.

He's a two-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the best goalie in the NHL. He's 21-13 with a 2.09 goals-against average, a .927 save percentage and five shutouts in 36 starts in the playoffs. He has been to the Stanley Cup Final once, with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015.

And he has reached a new level this season, even though the League's average goals-against average (2.81) is higher than it has been since 2005-06 and its average save percentage (.910) is at its lowest point since 2008-09.

 

[RELATED: Complete Predators vs. Stars series coverage]

 

Bishop is 27-15-2. His 1.98 goals-against average and .934 save percentage are the best of his NHL career and first among goalies who have played at least 32 games. His six shutouts are tied for the most of his career and for third in the NHL.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Stars clinch a playoff spot

Though he has battled injuries the past two months, leaving two games early and missing 11 others, he is expected to be ready to play the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference First Round. Game 1 is Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN1, TVAS).

"The last few years, I've honestly felt like I've gotten a little better every season," Bishop said. "Just more comfortable. I don't know what the reason is."

There are several reasons.

Bishop is 32 years old and has faced a little more than 10,000 shots in his NHL career. Maybe it's the goalie version of the 10,000-hour rule, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

Video: Stars clinch first playoff berth since 2016

"He's just a calming presence for our team in the [defensive] zone, because he's very vocal and he's very calm in net," coach Jim Montgomery said. "He's relaxed."

The NHL has reduced the size of goalie equipment. But it hasn't been able to reduce the size of Bishop (6-foot-7, 215 pounds), who isn't just big but athletic. He said he felt his rebound control improved with a smaller chest protector this season.

"I switched equipment this year, and I feel like a little bit lighter and faster," Bishop said. "I think that's helped me."

Montgomery's system plays to Bishop's strengths. The Stars want to force pucks at the red line and the defensive blue line.

"Well, if we're forcing that, we're usually forcing dumps, which allows him to get out and play it," Montgomery said. "We would want to play that way no matter who our goalie is, but having him back there really makes it, like, easy."

Bishop is one of the best puck-handling goalies in the NHL. So if opponents aren't careful, he acts like a third defenseman, diffusing the forecheck before it starts and starting the breakout.

Video: COL@DAL: Bishop makes two superb stops on MacKinnon

The Stars also emphasize limiting rush chances and keeping shots to the outside. It should be noted that backup Anton Khudobin is also having a strong season. He's 16-17-5 with a 2.57 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage and two shutouts.

"The rush chances are the ones that kill you, and the way we play, especially in the neutral zone, the way we angle, [Montgomery's] system, it's a goalie-friendly system," goalie coach Jeff Reese said. "But that's not taking anything away."

Bishop has been outstanding against high-danger scoring chances too.

"He's been very focused when he's been in," Reese said. "His game is in a good place. He's very quiet. He's letting the game come to him."

That has been critical for a team that has adjusted to its third coach in three seasons, has been plagued by injuries and has scored 2.55 goals per game, 29th in the NHL. The Stars rank second in the League in fewest goals against per game at 2.44.

"He's been our backbone," forward Tyler Seguin said. "He's been what we needed. He's been our catalyst with the way we've played this year. We took a long time to figure out what our identity was going to be, and he's a big reason of why it is what it is, and it's a defensive team that's going to outwork you.

"We came into this year thinking we were going to outscore teams, and we're going to be more offensive. We had a new coach, and we're trying to figure out what it was going to be. And by maybe February, March, we were like, 'OK, this is what we're going to be.' He's been the leading force of that."  

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