If there was anyone on the Tampa Bay Lightning that embodied the team’s spirit, despite the constant misfortune all season long, it was netminder Ben Bishop.
And at the 5:43 mark of the first period on April 8 versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, when an awkward dive for a puck left him grimacing in pain on a cold slab of ice, the feeling didn’t wane.
“Right when I hit the ice, I knew something was wrong,” Bishop said. “The first thought I had was missing the playoffs.”
While the Lightning did not immediately allow its uncertainty of what was ahead to show from the bench, it was a different story when they gathered in the locker room at the conclusion of the first 20 minutes of play.
Captain Steven Stamkos came with open arms to Bishop, who had become one of the most poised goalies in the league, but in the private moment between he and the rest of the team, all composure was lost.
“Stamkos was the first guy,” he said. “And I actually started crying.
“[Victor] Hedman and [Nate] Thompson were next and gave me hugs of their own. It was tough. You work all season for the playoffs and we just had a strong feeling I wasn’t going to be able to start.”
Though Bishop had played nearly half a season with a torn ligament in his right wrist – something he has since undergone successful surgery for during the offseason– at this point, a point where the Lightning were three games and two periods away from their first playoff appearance in three years, another injury became too much to bear.
And so it went, as he and the training staff had predicted, the Bolts were playoff bound without their towering giant to man the crease.
'I felt helpless'
The days that followed became the hardest part of all, as Bishop nestled into a view from the press box, as opposed to his usual view at ice level.
“Normally you’re at least backing up or in the locker room,” he said. “Being up there [in the press box], I felt helpless.”
Bishop spent the entire year establishing himself as one of the group’s vocal leaders, but in the wake of his dislocated elbow, he took a much different approach.
Besides taking part in the Lightning’s preliminary talks about first-round opponent the Montreal Canadiens and in post-game discussions with fellow goaltender Anders Lindback, Bishop simply let the “guys do their thing” and instead focused on the possibility of making a comeback of his own.
The speculation of a return never failed to barge its way into each and every media scrum during the series, but his comeback hopes along with the first round series were cut short when the Bolts made a swift exit after a four-game sweep by the Habs.
Sadly, Bishop felt he was a game or two shy of playing.
Still in the wake of elimination, it was almost as if the Lightning tapped into its subconscious to return the favor for all the times that the Bolts goalie had kept the team collected when facing the brunt of its schedule without Stamkos in the lineup and others who succumbed to ailments of their own. It was an important part of the recovery process.
“When guys on this team face injuries, they always have someone to pick them up,” Bishop said. “You’re not always at your highest morale when you’re hurt.
“They were all there. Guys came and said something to me or gave me a hug - it was always uplifting.”
The Road to Recovery
Now Bishop spends his time slinging a tennis ball with a bat using his unharmed left hand into the hollowed out bowl at the Tampa Bay Times Forum during breaks in his summer rehab.
Three months separates him from picking up where he left off and it is hard for Bishop to hold back a smile of excitement when asked how his experiences over the last months of the season have prepared him for next year.
“It almost feels like my year was incomplete by not being able to play in the playoffs,” Bishop said. “I have a target for next year; I’ll be ready for that. I’ll come back stronger and better by next year. I’m already excited.”
And the Bolts brass, as well as their fans, can look forward to the same excitement as Bishop continues his road to recovery. If his first full season with Tampa Bay was any indication of things to come, the Vezina Trophy finalist will be a key component as the Lightning look to build of their successful 2013-14 campaign.
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