TAMPA — When Ben Bishop fell to the ice diving for a puck on April 8, the conventional thinking suggested the Lightning’s playoffs hopes plummeted with him.
A week later, confidence in Tampa Bay’s goaltending has been almost fully restored as the Lightning get set to start their opening-round playoff series against Montreal. With Bishop not expected to be ready to return from what the team classified as an upper body injury, Anders Lindback is expected to get the call for Game 1 on Wednesday.
Whatever doubts might have lingered when the Lightning were forced to turn to Lindback were washed away in Lindback’s three appearances down the stretch.
Since stepping in for Bishop early in the first period against Toronto, Lindback has allowed just two goals in three games, posting a 0.67 goals-against average and .975 save percentage while winning all three games. His first shutout in a Lightning jersey during Sunday’s 1-0 shootout victory in Washington clinched home ice for Tampa Bay. And Lindback earned the NHL’s No. 1 star of the week honor.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and I said it time and time again: that is just a great guy and he works his tail off,’’ defenseman Matt Carle said. “So, it’s no surprise to see how well he’s doing. And it’s just great for our team and we have a lot of confidence playing in front of him.’’
That’s a far cry from where Lindback was for most of the season. As Bishop posted franchise records with 37 wins, a 2.24 goals-against average and .924 save percentage, Lindback was quickly relegated to backup duties, rarely seeing any playing time. And when he did play, it often came against top opponents such as Boston, San Jose or Pittsburgh.
He appeared in 23 games this season with a 2.90 GAA and .891 save percentage, worst in the league among goaltenders with more than 20 appearances.
But through it all, Lindback kept working, staying late on the ice, trying to find ways to improve and work on his mental game. Now, it is paying off. Lindback appears more calm and confident in the crease than at any time since arriving from Nashville in a trade prior to last season.
“I think I’m way more patient, I’m way more compact and I don’t open up as I’ve been doing this season,’’ said Lindback, 25. “I feel like I’m more consistent. And everything I do out there, it’s something I’ve been trying to work on and it’s been paying off the last couple of games here. So, it’s just now trying to keep pushing it and get better, and it’s time to take it to another level.’’
His teammates have taken notice of Lindback’s improved play.
“You just have a smile on your face for him, you’re so excited for him, you’re so happy for him,’’ Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “I could say it a million times and still mean it as much as I do now, for the work that he has put in this year to get this opportunity. ... He deserves everything that he’s getting right now and he’s been unbelievable.’’
Though Tampa Bay has some depth in goal with Kristers Gudlevskis, who won his NHL debut stopping 34 pucks against Columbus on Friday, Lindback has taken advantage of the chance the chance to play, and run with it.
“You cheer for guys like Lindy,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I know that the guys on the bench, they recognize the situation. Ben Bishop played so well that nobody was pushing him aside the way that he was playing. Lindy just kept working. And when you believe in yourself, you believe you’re going to get your chance.
“You need somebody to be there for you ... if something happens to Ben like what happened. And I’ve said it before, he keeps seizing the moment and I’m pretty proud of him.’’