Ben Bishop has been terrible lately.
Well, by Ben Bishop’s standards.
Over his last five games, Bishop has given up more than two goals at even strength twice. Twice! Three goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs and four goals to the San Jose Sharks!
Of course, it was the first time since Nov. 19 that Bishop had given up more than two even strength goals in a game …
That’s how good Bishop’s been. Maybe some of us have missed this while checking for daily updates on Steven Stamkos’ jersey color at practice, but Bishop has moved ahead of every one of his peers into the Vezina Trophy driver’s seat.
He has the workrate with 39 starts. He has the wins, with 26 in those 39 starts. He has the goals-against average at 1.99 and the save percentage at .937. He’s even fourth in shootout save percentage with .778 for goalies that have at least 15 shots against in the skills competition. (He’s 5-3 overall.)
In the last USA Today power rankings, Bishop was third in goalie voting behind Tuukka Rask and Josh Harding. The latter’s health problems have scuttled his Vezina aspirations; Rask matches Bishop with his stellar numbers, but the two diverge as candidates when you notice that Bishop’s doing it without the Boston Bruins’ defense and Patrice Bergeron up front.
But what is the Vezina at the end of the day? It’s not just an award for best goalie, but most important goalie. And that’s where Bishop’s candidacy takes off.
"When [Bishop] has been in there, he's grown into our game and we've grown with him," Coach John Cooper said last week to the Tampa Tribune. "You can just tell that guys aren't looking behind them. They are not afraid to make plays. They're not gripping the sticks as tight because they've got the confidence that he's going to make the save. So ultimately I guess your team does play a little different and it's translated into some wins for us.
“You know the old saying, 'Don't go out there and play not to lose, go out there and play to win. I think that's what we do when [Bishop] is in the net."
It’s a sentiment echoed by the players, like Victor Hedman to NHL.com: "We obviously try to play the same [no matter which goalie is in net], but Ben's confidence brings a lot of calmness to all the players. Even being out for a few games, he comes back and plays like he never left. He plays with such confidence and the whole team feels it."
So he’s got the numbers, he’s got the MVP goalie vibe … and he’s got the context, too.
Lest we forget that the 6-foot-7 freak of goaltending nature is in his first year as a starter, having previously played just 45 games in the NHL since 2008. He played himself into the starting role, played himself into Olympic consideration and played himself into awards talk while (somewhat miraculously) keeping the Tampa Bay Lightning secure in a playoff seed.
There was talk GM Steve Yzerman and the Lightning were fleeced when they traded Calder candidate Cory Conacher for Bishop last season. I didn’t see it that way, and the fact is that Bishop’s been incredible while Conachar’s been getting Richard Panik minutes.
When Stamkos comes back, some of the buzz around Bishop – including Hart Trophy buzz – will subside. But if his numbers hold up, hopefully it returns when the NHL’s GMs put his name down on their Vezina ballots.