Lightning's Bishop ready for pressure

TAMPA BAY, Fla. -- All eyes will be on Steven Stamkos when the Tampa Bay Lightning open their 2014-15 season against the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.

While the superstar center is expected to lead the way for the Bolts, there is another player on the roster that might be just as critical to the team's success.

Goaltender Ben Bishop.

The 27-year-old, 6-foot-7 Bishop had a stunning 2013-14 campaign, usurping Anders Lindback as the starter in the early stages of the season and earning a Vezina Trophy nomination when all was said and done. Even though he battled through a wrist injury for a good chunk of the season, playing with a cast on his right arm for almost the entire second half, he still managed to post dazzling numbers -- a 37-14-7 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average.

That earned him a two-year contract extension with the team this summer and brought stability to a position that has been a trouble spot for the Lightning in recent years.

Bishop is eager to return to peak form, and, judging by his final start of the preseason -- a 36-save effort on Saturday against the Panthers -- his recovery is going well.

He flashed the glove with an expert snag of Panthers defenseman Shane O'Brien's rising snapshot in the second period. Bishop was quick in reacting to a flurry of chances at the goal mouth later in the frame. He made a deft stick save to preserve a three-goal lead in the third. He looked both calm and confident in the wake of the most action he's seen all preseason.

"I thought he was strong tonight," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said after his team's 4-1 win on Saturday. "It's really nice to see both of our goalies playing well as we head into the season."

Watching from the press box, general manager Steve Yzerman was similarly pleased with Bishop's progress.

"He looks good. He looks comfortable," Yzerman told ESPN.com.

That should provide a source of reassurance for the Lightning heading into the season, especially with the expectations that lie ahead. With a healthy Stamkos and Bishop, some key defensive additions in Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison, and some burgeoning young offensive talents making strong impressions in camp (Nikita Kucherov led the league with six preseason goals; linemate Vladislav Namestnikov led the league with seven assists), the Lightning are quickly becoming a popular pick as a dark horse to win the Eastern Conference.

A deep playoff run would be a dream for Bishop, especially given how his postseason hopes were dashed this past spring.

After battling through the wrist injury for half the season, Bishop was sidelined with an elbow injury right before the postseason began, forcing him to watch idly as his club was unceremoniously swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

Shortly after the Bolts were knocked out of the playoffs, Bishop underwent surgery on his wrist, a procedure that impacted his offseason training.

Though there was plenty of time for leisure, there was no golf or tennis for Bishop. More importantly, his offseason training had to be adjusted. He couldn't do any upper-body lifting until the last four to six weeks of the summer.

He focused mainly on footwork and conditioning until his wrist was strong enough to perform static drills, slowly incorporating blocker-side duties and puck handling as the timeline allowed.

Because Bishop spent so much time playing through the injury last season, he had adopted different tendencies that allowed him to play with the limited mobility of his wrist.

That was especially apparent on shots and door-step plays on his blocker side.

"I definitely had to change the way I played," Bishop explained. "I couldn't bend my wrist, so that kind of changes the way you play. Making saves, you usually try to cut the angles off and block the angle with the blocker, but I wasn't able to do that. I had to have my wrist straight the whole time, so it was an adjustment period, but now I'm learning to kind of play again with being able to bend my wrist."

Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean hopes the transition will be pretty seamless.

"Now, essentially, it's just to get back to what he was doing, because he was very good at that, making guys shoot on him and taking away the angle," Jean said. "He's been doing it for most of his career. It's like riding a bike, right?"

Bishop said he no longer thinks about or favors the injury, doesn't feel any discomfort and doesn't feel hindered by it. His puckhandling and timing still need some work, but he has peace of mind in knowing he is close to 100 percent.

"I'm not thinking about it out there," he said. "It's a nonissue."

According to one goaltending coach that has watched Bishop play recently, he looks steady to start the season.

"He looked real good," the coach told ESPN.com. "I didn't think he had to make many big saves but he was positioned well and he kept the game simple."

With a critical season ahead, Bishop seems well equipped to handle the pressure.

Goaltenders are often characterized as the resident weirdos of the bunch, with rigid game-day routines that border on obsessive, but Bishop does not seem to possess that distinctive brand of compulsivity.

Though teammates vouch for his ability to stay loose and relaxed when need be, he also knows when to turn it on, narrowing his focus and honing a certain competitive intensity.

"You can see the streak in his eyes, the knife in his teeth," Jean said with a chuckle. "He's coming to battle. He's not just coming to play the game. I think that's important, and I think guys feed off that a lot."

Veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov, who inked a one-year, $1.55 million deal this summer to back up Bishop, praised the youngster's poise in the crease.

"The most important thing is how calm he is in the net," Nabokov told ESPN.com. "That's one of the things in my mind [that stands out]."

Sometimes, Nabokov notes, bigger goalies try to use their size and end up playing too aggressively, but Bishop doesn't seem afflicted by this. Instead, he reads the play well, uses his size to his advantage when necessary and employs the type of agility that is uncommon for a player of his stature.

"He has all the tools in his repertoire," Nabokov said. "He's calm and he lets the puck come to him."

Having Nabokov to further solidify the position should be a significant coup for the team as well. Nabokov can mentor Bishop while also pushing him. The 39-year-old former Vezina Trophy finalist was a starter for the New York Islanders the past three seasons and is more than capable of handling a good chunk of the workload if needed.

"Nabby's super important for us because we want to be in a position where [Bishop] doesn't have to play 65-70 games," Jean said.

Ideally, the Bolts would like Bishop to play 50-55 games during the regular season to ensure optimal performance, assuming the team makes it to the postseason -- when the wear and tear takes a toll both physically and mentally.

"Our objective is to play Ben, but to play him smartly, make sure he has plenty of gas in the tank," Jean said.

Not like Bishop needs much by extra motivation come playoff time. He doesn't want to be watching again this spring. He wants to play.

"Absolutely. It was a lot of hard work through the whole season to get to that [point], and to not be able to play in what you were working for the whole season, it was disappointing. But there was nothing you could do about it," Bishop said of last season. "Now, it's a new season, and we have to try to make the playoffs again.

"That was the goal last year, and that's the goal this year."