The questions surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goaltending situation were answered in Game 5 of their Stanley Cup Final matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks. Unfortunately for the Eastern Conference champions, they have another question to address for Game 6.
After dealing with the mysterious injury situation involving Ben Bishop for nearly a week, the netminder was back in the crease Saturday and appeared more agile and energetic than at any previous point in the series. The 6-foot-7 goalie was tested early, facing 14 shots in the first period, and finished with 27 saves.
Bishop made a premature exit in Game 2 with an undisclosed physical issue and favored the lower left portion of his body in the following contest while playing the full 60 minutes. The 28-year-old wasn’t even in uniform for Game 4, as Andrei Vasilevskiy made his first career playoff start and Kristers Gudlevskis served as his backup, and was listed as questionable right up until his participation in pregame warmups.
“It’s really a tough decision this time of year,” Bishop told the media prior to Game 5 in regard to deciding whether or not he should play. “It’s not about one person. When you get this far, you don’t want to hurt the team at all. It’s been a long season, you got this far, and you don’t want to be holding back the team.”
Bishop made another tough decision early in the first period, one he wishes he could have back. The goaltender came out of his crease to play a loose puck near the top of the left faceoff circle but missed it, running into teammate Victor Hedman instead.
The collision allowed Patrick Sharp to skate around the players and gain possession of the puck before depositing it into the vacant net, giving Chicago a 1-0 lead just 6:11 into the contest. Bishop played well the rest of the way but was unable to deny Antoine Vermette two minutes into the third period after kicking the rebound of Kris Versteeg’s shot right to the veteran center in the low slot for what proved to be the game-winning goal.
In addition to the pivotal game, Tampa Bay lost one of its Triplets as Nikita Kucherov was injured on his third shift of the night and did not return.
The NHL’s second-leading scorer this postseason, Kucherov intercepted a clearing attempt by Corey Crawford but was upended by the diving goaltender in the crease and crashed into the left post. The 21-year-old remained down for several seconds before making his way to the bench, favoring his right shoulder as he headed to the locker room.
“Actually, I thought he was coming back,” Cooper told the media. “He’ll be evaluated probably (Saturday night and Sunday). … Losing a guy like Kuch, you don’t want to lose guys like that.”
Kucherov, who played a total of 1 minute, 17 seconds on three shifts, was replaced by rookie Jonathan Drouin on the Lightning’s Triplets line that also features Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. The Russian has been a key contributor offensively for Tampa Bay during its run to the Final, recording 10 goals and 22 points – one behind Johnson for the league lead.
“He’s a point-per-game guy in these playoffs,” Cooper told the media. “He’s a big part of our offense. In a series where goals are at a premium, it’s tough when you lose one of your guys.”
The Lightning find themselves in a 3-2 hole as the series shifts back to Chicago and face the possibility of being without one of their top scorers for Game 6. They overcame an identical series deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, but not having Kucherov could prove to be too big an obstacle to overcome.