TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning might not be in the playoffs were it not for G Ben Bishop. Coach Jon Cooper doesn’t dispute that. But there is more to the Lightning’s success than the play of their lead goaltender.
In the last quarter of the season, Cooper saw his team become far less reliant on the play of its goalie, and he is confident that trend will continue during the playoffs.
“Before the Olympic break, I would have said we were winning a lot of games because of our goaltending,’’ Cooper said. “That’s just a flat out fact. Ben Bishop just carried us to the Olympic break.
“But since the Olympic break, we’ve won a lot of games because of our team and the way we’ve played. We’ve played much better team defense (lately). We’ve really limited the number of scoring chances that teams are seeing.’’
By Cooper’s count, there were games prior to the Olympic break where the Lightning allowed their opponents between 15 and 20 scoring chances per game. Since the break they have cut that number in half, he said.
The Lightning recorded a point in the standings in 16 of the last 20 games. Goaltending was certainly a factor in that run, but Cooper thinks his team is simply more well rounded now.
“Naturally you need your goalie to make saves,’’ he said. “But we’re a better team now.’’
They might have to be. The Lightning will be without Bishop for tonight’s first-round playoff opener against the Candiens as Bishop remains sidelined by an upper-body injury sustained April 8 that kept him out of the last two regular-season games.
Anders Lindback is expected to start in goal tonight, but Cooper wasn’t committing to that early Wednesday. Asked who woud start Game 1, Cooper only said, “It won’t be Bishop, that’s for sure.’’
Bishop did skate for the second consecutive day well before the rest of the team hit the ice Wednesday. Bishop, who injured his left arm, has not worn his chest protector on the ice, though he did go through some drills with assistant medical trainer Mike Poirier.
It wasn’t just Lightning players such as Alex Killorn, Ryan Johnson and Ondrej Palat making their Stanley Cup playoff debut on Wednesday. Cooper was making his, as well.
Cooper is so focused on his job, though, he has yet to soak in the atmosphere or celebrate the fact he’s taken a team to the playoffs in his first year behind an NHL bench.
“I was watching (the NHL Network) last night and they were talking about me and then they went to next preview and my wife said, ‘You know they’re talking about you, right?’’’ Cooper said.
“I was like, ‘Yeah,’ but it’s almost like they’re talking about someone else. When you’re in this, you don’t’ get to see what everyone else sees, so it’s actually a bit more calming to be in the fire than to be watching the fire, if that makes any sense.’’
Just another day
The opening game of a playoff series, even a first-round series, is not just another game. That, though, is how Cooper was trying to treat the Lightning’s opener against the Canadiens.
“To me, we’ve played the Montreal Canadiens before,’’ he said. “And we’ve played against (G) Carey Price before. We’ve beat him before. Just because the game is being played in the middle of April shouldn’t make a difference.’’
Tampa Bay RW Ryan Callaan and Montreal LW Brandon Prust spent three years playing together with the New York Rangers, including in 2012 when New York reached the Eastern Conference final. But Prust signed as a free agent with the Canadiens on in July 2012, while Callahan was dealt to the Lightning on March 5.
Both have the type of playoff grit coaches often point toward when the postseason comes around.
“He doesn’t take a shift off,’’ Prust said of Callahan. “He’s a warrior out there, he blocks shots, he hits and works his butt off and has good skill. He’s a guy, especially around this time of the year, that you have to be careful of and make sure you hit him before he hits you.’’
Callahan called Prust a “great competitor.’’
“He’s one of those guys you don’t like playing against but love to have on your team,’’ Callahan said. “I have a lot of respect for him and the way he plays and I’m excited to go up against him.’’
Late in Tampa Bay’s victory against Montreal on April 1, Canadiens’ D Douglas Murray landed a head shot to Lightning D Mike Kostka that knocked Kostka unconscious and resulted in a three-game suspension for Murray.
But even if Murray appears for Montreal - he was on the ice late with the scratches Wednesday morning - revenge will not be on the mind of Tampa Bay players during the series.
“Murray is an honest player,’’ Cooper said. “I don’t think anybody is going to be looking for retribution or anything like that. It’s time to go win hockey games.’’
Back in black
With the start of the playoffs comes new playoff swag for the players and staff.
New black hoodies with the Lightning logo in white on the front are being worn around the locker room. In addition, black workout undershirts were distributed with the saying “Capture the Dream’’ printed on the back.
Nuts and Bolts
Lightning RW Nikita Kucherov scored his first NHL goal off his first shot in a game against the Rangers on Nov. 25 and scored his first NHL playoff goal off his first shot Wednesday against Montreal. ... The Lightning issued 90 credentials to out of town media for Wednesday night’s series opener.