As sports fans, it’s hard not to imagine how things may have played out differently in certain situations. Whether it’s the trading of a key player or a questionable coaching decision we consider what could have been for our teams. Inspired by Puck Daddy’s Summer Series on Alternate Realities for each NHL team, we’re taking a look at moments in Lightning history that could have been altered if bounces had gone the other way.
What if Ben Bishop stayed healthy in the post season*? (*and right before the post season)
It may be difficult to look back on Bishop’s tenure with the Bolts when his departure from the club is still so fresh. He was absolutely incredible during his time here, rewriting the franchise record books for his position. His stellar play is one of the main reasons why the team was able to make three consecutive post season appearances. Unfortunately, he seemed to have very bad luck once a berth was clinched.
The 2013-14 season is when the rest of the league really started noticing the young, talented team in Tampa. Less than a week before the playoffs were set to begin the Bolts hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs. During a play in front of his net, Bishop tried snagging a loose puck. He fell to the ice and landed on his left wrist. He previously injured the wrist in January of that year. Bishop would miss the playoffs entirely and the Montreal Canadiens unceremoniously swept the youngsters in the first round.
Disclaimer: the next few points are definitely loaded topics. Many of us have blocked out these memories as a means of self-preservation. The wounds are still fresh. Think warm happy thoughts and we’ll dive in.
Tampa Bay took what they learned from the previous year’s early exit and made it back to the playoffs in 2015. They made it through the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers to earn a trip to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in team history. Waiting for them there were the Chicago Blackhawks. This was a Chicago team that was accustomed to success, having won two Cups in the previous five years.
Things took an abrupt turn in the third period of Game 2. After the series concluded, Bishop revealed he tore his right groin muscle on a Brad Richards shot in the second period. A series of strange events unfolded in the third as he would leave the game at 7:17 to try and stabilize the injury on the fly. He reappeared on the bench shortly thereafter and returned to action at 8:49. He finished the game and the Lightning would go on to win 4-3.
Bishop returned to action in Game 3 where he registered a 36 save performance in a 3-2 victory. The Lightning wouldn’t win another game for the remainder of the series. While the injury hindered Bishop’s mobility, he still played quite well. He finished the post season with a record of 13-11 and faced 660 shots.
Would the story have been different for the Lightning in 2015 if Bishop was healthy? Not necessarily. Tyler Johnson sustained a broken wrist early in the Final series that put the ka-bosh on a prolific post season. Nikita Kucherov was injured in Game 5. The rest of the team was feeling the effects of two challenging series that were pushed to Game 7s. The onus for the loss doesn’t fall on one person.
Fast forward to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final and an even scarier scene in the first period of Game 1. Bishop went behind the net to play the puck but the Penguins increased the pressure around the net. He had to hurry back to the crease where he made one save and stretched out a leg to stop a Patric Hornqvist rebound attempt. Bishop immediately fell to the ice and was in visible discomfort, clutching his left knee. He was stretched off the ice and wouldn’t return for the remainder of the playoffs.
Could the Bolts have made it to the Stanley Cup Final again if Bishop hadn’t gone down so early in the series? There are no guarantees that could have happened. They were missing some key components. Anton Stralman sustained a broken leg in March of that year. He returned in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final but later revealed that his leg wasn’t completely healed. Steven Stamkos missed almost the entirety of the playoff run while recovering from surgery to remove blood clots in his shoulder. He returned for Game 7 but it wasn’t meant to be. It should be pointed out that the Pittsburgh Penguins were insanely good. In the end, no team was up to the task of stopping them.
It bears mentioning that Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s elevation to the number one position was likely accelerated by filling in for Bishop in high-pressure situations like the Eastern Conference Final. The learning curve in the post season is incredibly high and he did well for a young player with limited NHL experience. There’s still room for continued development but Vasilevskiy is undoubtedly in a better position to succeed in the long term after being thrown into the fire out of necessity.
A reasonably healthy Ben Bishop could have changed recent history for the Lightning. There’s also a good chance things end up exactly as they have. Had the Bolts won the Cup on Bishop’s back, it’s likely that the team would look very different than it does now. If Steven Stamkos won a championship would he have signed a new contract elsewhere? A number of players that opted to stay and continue the quest together may now be scattered across the league in the wake of a successful run. As it is, the Bolts still have an incredibly talented, young team that seems poised to make an impact once again. If things had turned out differently, the future could be much less certain.
(Feature Photo/Christine Gunn)