Dan Di Sciullo - NHL Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Ben Bishop stepped up when the Tampa Bay Lightning needed him most. Both the goaltender and his team are hoping it was the sign of things to come.
In what was far and away the most important game of his career, Bishop turned in a 31-save shutout to anchor Tampa's Game 7 victory over the Detroit Red Wings Wednesday night.
The 2-0 home win set up a second-round matchup against the Montreal Canadiens, a team Bishop and the Lightning are dying to face.
An opening-round sweep at the hands of the Canadiens has haunted the Bolts for a full calendar year, but they'll finally get a chance to properly avenge that loss.
Tampa finished second to Montreal in the Atlantic Division standings, but the Canadiens have reason to fear this matchup. After all, the Lightning obliterated the Habs in the 2014-15 season series, taking all five meetings while outscoring the Canadiens by a combined 21-8 margin.
Of course, winning a regular-season series in convincing fashion won't mean much if the Lightning can't follow it up in this postseason battle.
Tampa is counting on a few things to help them get payback against the Habs in this playoff rematch. First and foremost is the presence of Bishop. The Lightning's No. 1 goaltender missed the entire 2014 playoff run, which turned out to be a brief one.
This time the lanky netminder is healthy and has a round of playoff experience under his belt. Bishop made his postseason debut in the opening round against Detroit and after a shaky start wound up posting a solid 1.87 GAA and .922 save percentage for the series. He won the final two games, helping Tampa avoid elimination twice after falling behind 3-2 in the series.
Of course, Bishop's best performance was his most recent one, as he helped the Lightning overcome a slow start on Wednesday before finding their legs and grinding out the Game 7 victory.
The Red Wings outplayed Tampa for most of the game and held a 31-17 advantage in shots. That included a 14-7 edge in shots in the first period when Bishop kept coming up with big saves. He had given up a soft goal or two in the early part of the series and if that happened again in Game 7, it would have likely spelled doom for the Lightning.
Scoring first is never a bad thing, but it is extremely important in the contest of a Game 7. Entering Wednesday's tilt, the club which scores first was 116-41 all-time in the decisive battle of a best-of-seven series and Tampa improved that record with its win over the Red Wings.
Bishop stopped all 23 shots sent his way through the first two periods, and just under four minutes into the final period defenseman Braydon Coburn broke a scoreless contest with his first goal of the series. Bishop stayed unblemished between the pipes the rest of the way and Anton Stralman sealed the win with an empty-net tally with 1:18 left.
"As a goalie, you just try to keep your team in it as long as you can, and they came alive there in the third," Bishop said.
The hope is Bishop won't have to be perfect too often for the Bolts to get past the Habs. Outside of a terrific showing from second-line center Tyler Johnson, who scored six times against Detroit to tie a franchise record for most goals in a single series, the Lightning's vaunted offense struggled in the opening round.
Tampa led the NHL with 3.16 goals per game during the regular season, but saw that number dip to 2.43 GPG in the playoff matchup against the Red Wings. The Lightning need a better effort overall, but one guy in particular needs to step up his game against Montreal.
Captain Steven Stamkos failed to score a single goal in the seven-game series after the star center finished second in the NHL with 43 goals during the regular season. The 25-year-old sniper has now gone 10 straight postseason games without a marker and the last time he scored in the playoffs was when he tallied twice in Game 1 of last season's series against Montreal.
Stamkos should be eager to put his rough series against Detroit behind him and this matchup against Montreal could offer the perfect opportunity to do so. He scored five goals and added two assists in the season series and was just one of several Tampa players to light it up versus the Habs in 2014-15.
Montreal head coach Michel Therrien has heaped praise on Tampa's scorers, calling the Lightning "the best offensive team in the league," and he is positioning team as the underdog in spite of its home-ice advantage.
For Therrien, calling his team the underdog is likely a psychological tactic to get his team fired up, but it also happens to be the truth in this case.
Sometimes it can be a mistake to read too much from a regular-season series when analyzing a playoff matchup, but it's difficult to ignore what Tampa was able to do against the Canadiens in 2014-15.
With Bishop as the piece holding it all together, the Lightning are poised to finish off what they started against Montreal in the regular season.