Ben Bishop is at a career crossroads.
That seems harsh, considering this is his first foray into postseason hockey. Judging a human being as they react to a unique pressure situation for the first time seems unfair, but that's only because fairness has never had a place in sports.
When Bishop takes the ice for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, it will be his first time in a game of that magnitude, which could be said for each successive game he's played since mid-April.
He won't be in a hostile environment, although he will be in MSG.
At the other end of the ice, Henrik Lundqvist will be casually smoking a cigarette, modeling for a Swedish magazine cover shoot and playing guitar with John McEnroe.
Six straight Game 7 victories since 2012 will do wonders for a goaltender's confidence.
|Henrik Lundqvist vs. Ben Bishop|
|Goaltender||Game 7 record||Game 7 SV%||Series SV%|
If the Tampa Bay Lightning win Game 7, Bishop will be hailed as a clutch goaltender, one who can get the job done when the chips are down.
He brought his team back from down 3-2 in its series against the Detroit Red Wings, got the best of Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in the second round and will have knocked off the New York Rangers in a Game 7, which is like beating Joshua at Global Thermonuclear War.
If the Lightning lose, then he'll be the guy who let a 3-2 lead slip away in a series that has seen him allow 15 goals in three games in Tampa plus whatever gets by him in New York in Game 7.
This will be the game that defines Bishop—perhaps forever—because with two years remaining on his contract and at 28 years old, who knows if he'll ever get another shot at the conference finals in his career?
The Lightning will be facing some tough salary-cap decisions in the coming years, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that general manager Steve Yzerman would make Bishop a casualty of that situation.
If that happens, there's no telling where Bishop could land, but it very likely wouldn't be with a team as good as Tampa.
That is the cruel nature of hockey.
Then again, it's not all that unfair.
Bishop was atrocious in Game 3 while allowing five goals, but Lundqvist gave up six. In Game 4, Bishop wasn't a disaster, but he was responsible for five goals allowed—this time in a loss.
In Game 5, Bishop had a 26-save shutout—something that can't be nitpicked, but let's nitpick: Can you remember a tough save he made in that game or even a second or third? The Lightning played a lockdown brand of defense and won 2-0, which is likely what they will need to do to win Game 7.
New York's first shot of Game 6, which came from Derick Brassard in front of the net, was tucked through Bishop's legs as he feebly attempted a poke check.
Keith Yandle made it 2-0 on a shot that was probably headed wide, which seems to be the blueprint for Yandle scoring in this series, but it hit a body in front and slipped past Bishop.
Before the horn sounded on Game 6, Bishop was on the bench watching Andrei Vasilevskiy complete the game.
"I know we look here and say he gave up five last night," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said during a conference call Wednesday. "I don't think any of us on this call can sit here and say Ben was the big reason we gave up the five. He did everything he could to keep the puck out of the net. It was our five guys in front of him that didn't help him out."
Fatigue can manifest itself in various ways. For a goaltender, it can be about tracking pucks through bodies, something Bishop hasn't done well at all in this series. It can also be about making the proper decisions in high-pressure situations, which hasn't been Bishop's strong suit of late.
Bishop has made 19 consecutive starts in the postseason after never starting more than eight in a row in the regular season. Game 7 will be the 82nd game of the year for Bishop, the most he's ever played.
Cooper gave his team the day off on Wednesday, and while just about every player could use the break now—especially with a flu bug running through the team, according to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times—perhaps no one needs a day away from the rink more than Bishop.
"I don't even know if it's the physical aspect as it is the mental aspect," Cooper said. "When you have to get yourself up every single second day, that can be pretty trying on a starting goaltender. "But there's no question that this day is needed for everybody to have to rest and relax. It's a much-needed day and probably especially for Ben."
Reading a goaltender's body language is tricky, but Bishop's wasn't great in Game 6.
Just about any time a left-handed skater had the puck along the left-wing boards near the goal line, Bishop was down on a knee hugging the post for dear life. If anyone shot the puck from the near-impossible angle, he was lunging into the post as if he was trying to head-butt the spot where the post and crossbar meet.
That's not the stance of a confident goaltender, and maybe that's how fatigue manifests itself during a goaltender's 81st game of the season.
Right now, Bishop seems like a goaltender hoping the puck hits his 6'7" frame—not a goaltender who believes he can stop pucks with his height serving as an incidental factor in the occurrence.
The only other time Bishop was pulled this postseason was when he allowed three goals on 14 shots against the Canadiens in Game 4. He answered the bell in Game 5, stopping 27 of 29 shots in a 2-1 loss before turning aside 18 of 19 in the series-clinching win in Game 6.
"The one thing about him is he's a mentally tough kid," Cooper said. "When he's been challenged, he's responded."
That's the fork in the road for Bishop—one path leads him to the Stanley Cup Final and the reputation of a goaltender who's at his best when things are at their worst, and the other path leads to the end of Tampa's season and the tag of a goaltender who faded in late May.