TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — No team wins Stanley Cup without reliable goaltending, so Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop finds it laughable when he reads or hears criticism about Chicago’s Corey Crawford.
Although the starting goalies in the finals series that resumes Saturday night have had their ups and downs this postseason, there’s no question Bishop’s Lightning and Crawford’s Blackhawks wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t depend on them.
Bishop is 7-1 with a .937 save percentage in games following a playoff loss. He also closed out the Eastern Conference finals with a pair of shutout wins over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Crawford is better known and more accomplished, helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup two years ago. Now he has a shot at another after briefly losing his job during a tough first-round series for the 30-year-old, whose success Bishop has followed from a distance.
“He’s a great goalie,” Bishop said, looking ahead to Game 2 at Amalie Arena, where the Lightning will try to rebound from letting the opener of the best-of-seven series slip away in the closing minutes.
Bishop stopped 19 of 21 shots in Game 1, yielding both Blackhawks goals in a 2-1 loss in a 1:58 span of the third period.
Crawford gave up a goal less than five minutes into the game, but finished with 22 saves to post his 42nd career playoff win — three shy of the Blackhawks’ record held by Hall of Famer Tony Esposito.
“Personally, I kind of looked up to him. He spent some time in the minors, just like I did,” Bishop said. “Some people doubt him, but the guy just goes out there and wins. He’s won a Stanley Cup. It’s funny how some people still have questions on a guy who’s won a Stanley Cup. And, now he’s back at his second one.”
Crawford is trying to become the first goalie to win two Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks. Overall, Chicago is aiming for a third title in six seasons.
“To be honest, I never doubted myself, and I don’t think guys in our room doubted me. That’s what really matters,” Crawford said. “No matter what you do, there’s going to be somebody who doubts you. Really, I never listen to that.”
Neither do his teammates.
Even after Crawford’s struggles in the first round against Nashville, when he was removed from the lineup for three games and part of a fourth. He regained his job by coming off the bench during Game 6 to replace Scott Darling and help the Blackhawks close out the Predators.
“I don’t know what’s said or not outside. In the locker room, we know what kind of player he is,” Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya said.
“He’s always been tremendous here. He’s a hard competitor. He loves the game,” Oduya added. “Every time it’s on the line we know we can trust him. He has the ability to come up in games like he did (Wednesday night). He saved us probably three, four, five times to keep us in it.”
The Lightning express the same type of support for Bishop, who began his career with stints as a backup for his hometown St. Louis Blues and the Ottawa Senators.
Tampa Bay acquired him in a trade from Ottawa in April 2013, giving the 6-foot-7 Bishop — the tallest goalie in the NHL — his first opportunity to be a full-time starter.
The biggest question remaining about him after the 28-year-old won 77 games over the past two regular seasons was how he would hold up in the playoffs for the first time.
He has responded by playing his best in the biggest games, including a pair of Game 7 shutouts, one of them on road, where he’s allowed 15 goals in 10 games.
And, he outplayed two of the league’s best goalies, Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, to help Tampa Bay reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history.
“There was always a lot of talk that he had not been there, but we always trusted him, believed in him,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said.
“He’s our backbone, a big reason why we’re here,” center Brian Boyle added. “He’s our MVP.”
With the Blackhawks and Lightning playing in different conferences, they only faced each other twice during the regular season.
So, most of what Crawford has seen of Bishop has coming from watching him on television during the Lightning’s playoff run.
“He’s good. To get to this point, you have to have guy in net who’s playing well,” Crawford said.
Bishop embraced the challenge of facing Price in the second round and Lundqvist in the Eastern Conference finals, where Tampa Bay advanced with a 2-0 victory in Game 7.
Crawford may not be considered in the same class, but he has something neither Price or Lundqvist has — a Stanley Cup title.
That’s good enough for Bishop.
“if you want to be the best,” the Tampa Bay goaltender said, “you have to beat the best.”
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