Success in hockey can begin and end with quality goaltending. The Dallas Stars have suffered through this lesson over the past few years. But so far in the 2018-19 season, Ben Bishop is giving them the backstopping they need to finally chase that success.
For nearly a decade, the Stars had suffered through various feats when it came to their crease. Part of their woes had to do with their constant recycling of backup goaltenders as they searched for a long-term answer. Dallas went through five backup goalies in a three-year span from 2013-2015 but could never find a proper answer. This failed search also contributed to the overusing of and eventual deterioration of Kari Lehtonen as a starting-caliber NHL goaltender.
To put it plainly, their crease was a mess. And considering their goalie prospect depth chart was still young and a few years from NHL play, something needed to be done sooner rather than later.
Every hockey fan knows that the chance at being a great hockey team begins and ends with solid goaltending. Every hockey team is only as strong as the guy stopping pucks behind them. He’s the last line of defense and can make or break a game either with a show stopping save or a fluky goal against.
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But the Dallas Stars needed a proven starter to help their crease compete and, as a result, get the team back into contention. That’s why they snagged Bishop via trade and secured the pending UFA a few days later with a six-year deal.
In his first year with the Stars, Bishop did most of what great NHL goalies do. He posted a record of 26-17-5, a .916 save percentage (the 13th best of all NHL starters), and a 2.49 goals against average. Those are all solid numbers from a starting goalie and gave the Stars an edge that they hadn’t possessed in a while.
So, what did Bishop do wrong in year one? Well, injuries cost him a lot.
Bishop was injured in the first week of March after Dallas defenseman Dan Hamhuis fell on him in the crease. That injury would end up sidelining Bishop for all but one period of play in the final month, leaving the Stars to try and ride Kari Lehtonen to the playoffs (which didn’t end up working, as you probably remember).
The 31-year-old played in just 53 games last season, missing one of the most critical parts of the year while recovering from an MCL sprain.
“Yeah, I feel fine,” Bishop said on exit interview day in April when asked about the next five years of his contract. “Since I became a starting goalie, I’ve played top ten in the league in games played. It’s just unfortunate because it seems that it always happens at bad times. If it happens in the first month of the season and you get back within a month, there’s no reason to talk about it.
“It’s kind of unfortunate that it’s in the end of the season like this. It’s a little fluky with your own guy falling on you. Not the way you want to go out for the season.”
While Bishop had proven that he could be a solid option in big moments, the whole “five years left” wasn’t too reassuring after seeing injuries once again play a role in his performance and availability. There aren’t many 6’7 goalies in the NHL, after all.
But coming into the 2018-19 season, Bishop knew the sense of urgency. While the majority of the Stars’ core is made up of players entering or in the middle of their prime, Bishop is nearing the end of his own. He carried the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final just a few seasons ago and knows what it takes to accomplish such a feat.
And so far in 2018-19, he’s proving that with the Dallas Stars.
Bishop started his season on the best possible note on Thursday night, stopping all 30 shots faced against the Arizona Coyotes on opening night. Two days later, he followed up his sixth shutout as a Star with a 33/34 performance against the Winnipeg Jets. He showed no signs of hesitancy in putting away either win.
“It’s nice to start off with a win,” Bishop said after Thursday’s contest. “I felt good. I just kind of took it shot-by-shot. The guys did a good job eliminating those odd-man rushes and a good job clearing the front when there was a couple ones that squeaked by.”
As we saw, the Stars faced two very different challenges in their first two contests. Arizona is a team in rebuild mode but still gave an intriguing fight to a Dallas team trying to learn a new system and incorporate a new culture. Two days later, Winnipeg gave them a chance to measure up against the big dogs of the division.
They succeeded in both endeavors, and Bishop is a large reason for that.
He’s looked entirely composed and focused in the crease. When the Stars took the 3-0 lead on Thursday night and were outshot 10-5 by Arizona in the third period, he didn’t flinch. That focus also held true when the Stars were outshot 15-4 by a high-flying Winnipeg offense in the third period on Saturday. He’s also done an impressive job at handling and moving the puck outside of the crease, a strength that he’s always possessed.
The Dallas defense has done a good job at giving up few high-danger chances this season. But when one gets through, Bishop has been there to dissolve it.
As a result of Bishop’s performance, the team is becoming more confident. The players in front of him can better embrace the new system fully while knowing that they have a safety net like Bishop behind them. His presence in the crease is becoming a reassurance factor for the entire club, including head coach Jim Montgomery.
Following the victory on Thursday night, Montgomery pointed out that for as long as the schedule and Bishop’s play allowed, the Stars would start no. 30 in net. And after a stellar performance against a Stanley Cup contender on Saturday night, the assumption is that Montgomery’s plan will stay in effect.
At the moment, Bishop is 2-0-0 with a .984 save percentage and 0.50 GAA. It’s a very small sampling size, but, like with the Stars, it gives him something to build on.
A hockey team is only as good as the goaltender they have behind them. And for the first time in what seems like forever, the Dallas Stars have a chance to be really good thanks to Bishop.
But, like Montgomery said following the win on Saturday, “Let’s not get too excited, it was game number two. We’ve got a lot of room. We’ve got to get better.”
Early season success is fun, but there’s never time to rest on it and there’s always room for improvement. All of that starts with the goaltending.
Let’s see where Big Ben can take this.