NEW YORK -- Do the Tampa Bay Lightning play differently when Ben Bishop is in the net as opposed to Anders Lindback?
"That's a hard question to ask," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
It's because Cooper and his players don't want it to appear like they're throwing Lindback under the bus and blaming him for their 10 regulation losses in his 16 decisions, or for the 50 goals he's allowed in 17 games, compared to the 58 goals Bishop has allowed in his 33 games.
Bishop has allowed three or more goals five times this season; Lindback has done it 10 times in roughly half the minutes.
Goalie - TBL
GAA: 1.83 | SVP: 0.937
"It's tough because Lindy [Lindback] is a popular guy in the room and the guys may press a little bit harder just to get Lindy some goal support," Cooper said.
OK, so the answer is Tampa Bay does play differently when Bishop is in the net, but there's a good reason for it.
"When [Bishop] has been in there, he's grown into our game and we've grown with him," Cooper said. "You can just tell that guys aren't looking behind them. They are not afraid to make plays. They're not gripping the sticks as tight because they've got the confidence that he's going to make the save. So ultimately I guess your team does play a little different and it's translated into some wins for us.
"You know the old saying, 'Don't go out there and play not to lose, go out there and play to win. I think that's what we do when [Bishop] is in the net."
The Lightning are 23-5-3 in Bishop's 33 games this season. Entering play Thursday his .937 save percentage is the best in the NHL and his 1.83 goals-against average is second only to Josh Harding of the Minnesota Wild.
After missing four games with a wrist injury, Bishop returned Tuesday and nearly was perfect in a 2-1 win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He stopped 33 of 34 shots, including 22 with the Lightning nursing a one-goal lead over the final 38:41.
"We obviously try to play the same [no matter which goalie is in net], but Ben's confidence brings a lot of calmness to all the players," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "Even being out for a few games, he comes back and plays like he never left.
"He plays with such confidence and the whole team feels it."
With confidence in the goalie behind them, the Lightning are averaging more goals per game with Bishop in net (2.82) as opposed to when Lindback is in net (2.41) despite averaging fewer shots on goal per game (27.0 with Bishop, 29.2 with Lindback) and giving up more shots on goal per game (28.1 with Bishop, 25.0 with Lindback).
In turn, Bishop has become the Lightning's MVP, according to captain Martin St. Louis. It's easy to wonder where the Lightning would be without Bishop, especially since Steven Stamkos went out with a broken leg Nov. 11.
"When he stands in there and makes a big save and with his continued play, he's been pretty consistent and that gives you confidence playing in front of him," St. Louis said. "That position has been solid for us this season."
St. Louis said the Lightning haven't felt this good about their goaltending since Dwayne Roloson was in net during their run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2011. They haven't been to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since then, but with Bishop the Lightning are challenging the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division. It would take a major meltdown for them to miss the playoffs again.
"He's played under 100 NHL games but we're catching him in his sixth year of pro and for goaltenders it takes a longer time to develop," Cooper said. "Fortunately for us as a team I think we're catching him at a time that he is coming into his own."