Many, many times, it's been pointed out.
When Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg; when Victor Hedman missed some time, and when the many other Tampa Bay Lightning regulars have been in and out of the lineup due to injury.
The one player this team cannot afford to lose is Ben Bishop.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are not supposed to be good right now, and the play of Ben Bishop has to be reason 1, 1a, and 1b when you try to answer how the Bolts have managed to hold on to a playoff spot sans Stamkos. The uptick in puck possession certainly doesn't hurt, but .935 goaltending will make up for a lot, and, to this point in the season, that's what the Lightning have been getting out of Ben Bishop.
Until last night.
Bishop exited just 4:18 into the game with what appeared to be an injury to his blocker hand, though most of what we know now is just idle speculation based on the play in question:
As Bishop pushes to his left, his right arm (blocker, stick) appears to drag as he slides across, but can't tell if stick got caught— Erik Erlendsson (@erlendssonTBO) January 6, 2014
Anders Lindback, with a season save percentage a full 52 points lower than Bishop's, entered the game in relief with the score already tied 1-1, after Nikita Kucherov gave the Lightning an early lead with a nice power play one-timer from the right side and the subsequent goal from Eberle that was Bishop's only shot faced.
A double minor for high sticking to Alex Killorn just minutes later put the Edmonton Oilers on an extended power play, and they grabbed the lead off a nice cross slot feed to Eberle, who fired the puck on net. Lindback got a piece of the shot, but bobbled it a bit and it ended up behind him for the 2-1 Edmonton lead. Luke Gazdic made it 3-1 after a botched zone exit up the middle of the ice ended up with Ryan Jones at the center point for a quick wrist shot that Gadzic tipped home.
The double minor didn't help, but even at 5v5, the Lightning looked lethargic and disorganized, completely different from their good starts against both the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames. They managed just 4 shots on goal for the entire period (as compared to 12 sent towards the Tampa net by the Oilers) and, quite frankly, deserved to be behind heading into the first intermission.
But as bad as the Bolts were early, they righted the ship in the middle frame, jumping on the Oilers early and getting back to the way they had played against the Flames and Canucks -- with speed and smart decision making with the puck. They tripled their shot output from the first period, outshooting the Oilers 14-9, and got a pair of goals from Victor Hedman and Valterri Filppula to tie the game at 3 apiece heading into the final 20 minutes.
Hedman's tally in particular was getting back to how the Lightning have had a lot of success lately -- on the rush, with Ondrej Palat turning a puck over in the neutral zone and finding Hedman lurking in from the blue line as the late trailer for a wrist shot on the partially screened Ilya Bryzgalov.
Unfortunately, the Oilers responded in the third, as Boyd Gordon beat Lindback off his own rebound in tight on a fluky play from the side of the net. Taylor Hall added an insurance marker later in the final period with a nice tip play in front. Hall beat his mark -- Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas -- twice on the play, once behind the net to keep a loose puck alive and back to the point, and again to the net where Andrew Ference played it to open space near the goalmouth for Hall to get a stick on it, making the final score 5-3.
- As of this writing, there is no further update on Ben Bishop other than "upper body injury" and that he did not speak to the press following the game. He is expected to do so tomorrow, when more should be known about the severity of his injury and how much time he could/will miss.
- In the meantime, expect GM Steve Yzerman to make a call-up to address the situation. Cedrick Desjardins is, for now, the organization's #3 goaltender, and with the most (but still limited) NHL experience of any goalie in the system besides Lindback he is the obvious choice to jump from the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL to the big club, leaving Riku Helenius -- who recently accepted assignment to the ECHL despite being on a 1-way NHL contract -- to come back to the Crunch to tandem with Kristers Gudlevskis. While the Lightning are building a lot of quality depth at the goaltending position system-wide, right now, the cupboard is a little bit top-heavy, and if Bishop is out for an extended period of time, it could be a serious problem. The difference between .935 and .883 goaltending is ... massive.
- The Lightning won the overall puck possession battle with a 55.2% Corsi For and a 56.8% Fenwick For, but a fair portion of that advantage was built around the second period surge that saw the Bolts claw back from down 3-1 to tie it, and then with score effects in the third period after the Oilers had taken the lead for good.
- Victor Hedman, who has been lights-out in terms of possession lately, was superb again, leading all players with a stellar 73.0% Corsi For. Ryan Malone, J.P. Cote, Nikita Kucherov, and J.T. Brown were also above 70.0%, which is outstanding control of the puck.
- On the other hand, it was a rough night for Andrej Sustr (37.5% Corsi For), who was also caught swimming a couple of times, which is uncharacteristic of the normally structured, smart, and poised rookie defender.