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Is it time for Lightning fans to completely trust Ben Bishop

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The image of some goalies is of a conqueror.

He stands in the goal, superior in victory, untarnished by the game. Some goalies leave the image of being bulletproof, the image of being invulnerable.

Ben Bishop? You remember his head slouched. You remember him trudging from the ice. You remember him on those nights he has not measured up.

Here, in the finest year a Tampa Bay goalie has ever had, perhaps it is time to recast that impression.

He has been good often enough, and on occasion, he has been brilliant. In the three-series clinching victories for Tampa Bay, he has allowed only one goal. He has been fierce. He has been trustworthy.

And still, it seems as if Tampa Bay does not quite trust him yet.

It is a shame, because the Lightning has never gotten a year like this from its goaltender. No, not in 2003-04. Nikolai Khabibulin was amazing in the playoffs that year and won the Stanley Cup, but he didn’t have the year that Bishop has had. If you remember, Khabibulin was benched halfway through that season. Yes, Dwayne Roloson had a good 2010-11. But he didn’t win like Bishop has. Darren Puppa, back in the day, didn’t either.

More than 50 times this year, Bishop has won for the Bolts, more than any other goaltender in the NHL. Last year, Bishop set the Lightning record for wins, and this year, he broke it. He has outplayed Hendrick Lundqvist and Carey Price, two of the goalies recognized as elite in this game.

Ah, but there have also been the nights when he has been chased from the game, the nights he looked like a man in a shooting gallery. There have been goals, too many goals, in the defeats for a fan to sit securely.

And now, in the final showdown, against from the snipers of the high-powered Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals, the question is as urgent as it is basic. Do you trust him?

When it comes to goaltenders, there are those who have won it, and there are those who have suffocated opposing skaters. Bishop, at present, is neither. There always has been much to love about Bishop and much to hate. He has thrown three shutouts in the playoffs, but he has been chased from two games. He had 40 wins during the regular season this year, but both his goals against average and his save percentage were pedestrian.

So is Bishop the best thing about the Lightning? Or the worst?

Or both?

He sits in the front of a room at Amalie Arena and grins. He is an affable sort, friendly and laid back. If you sat next to him in the stands, you’d like him. Watching him stand between the opponents and the goal? Maybe you aren’t so sure.

You ask him. In your private moments, do you think of yourself as one of the best goaltenders in the league?

“Yes,” he says simply. “I’d like to think so.”

And so he studies every goal. Was this one screened? Did this one deflect off someone? Was this one his fault. Usually, Bishop said, he will know it at once. But sometimes, it helps to see it. Sometimes, a guy can get ticked all over again.

It is his finest quality. Oh, goaltenders have different personalities. Some are hermits. Some are royalty. Some are funny. Some are distant.

“Most of us aren’t very smart,” Bishop said, laughing. “Seriously, I think we have all that focus. Most of us are confident. Most of us are competitive.”

Some, however, are beloved. Price has never won a Stanley Cup. Neither has Lundqvist. But both of those are generally acknowledged as elite.

Although he won 40 games in the regular season, his goals against average and his save percentage were both pedestrian. The Rangers chased him from a game. The Canadians, too.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: As former captain Dave Andreychuk says, these are Bishop’s first playoffs. He’s just getting to know the nation.

“I think everyone appreciates him,” said defenseman Anton Stralman. “I think it’s amazing how this team does when he plays well. I can’t remember one game he hasn’t given us a chance to win games. He’s always on his game. When we give up goals, it’s not because of him. It’s because of the players in front of him. He’s very calm, very confident. He’s one of the toughest goalies in the league. We’re going to need him now more than ever and I’m sure he’s going to be there.”

Look, once Khabibulin got going, he was easy to follow. He threw five shutouts in those playoffs. He had a 1.71 save percentage. He was the Bulin Wall.

Bishop? He’s been great in the most important games, allowing only one goal in the three clinching games. He’s got three shutouts. But his save percentage is 2.15.

Is that good enough for Lightning fans?

Four more wins, and he’ll be a bank. He’ll be a fireman. He’ll be a soldier.

Four more wins, and they’ll trust him forever.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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