Ben Bishop's long white goalie pads were laid face down in front of his empty locker, a skate left splayed behind each one. To say it looked like the Tampa Bay netminder was in a hurry to escape the scene of a crime would hardly be an exaggeration.
That's because Bishop stole Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday, making 36 sometimes-shaky saves in a 3-2 victory, while coping with a mystery ailment that he and his team have gone to comic lengths to avoid revealing. He kept the Lightning in the game early, then got his payback when defenseman Victor Hedman made his second sublime assist of the contest, pulling Chicago's defense apart before sliding the puck from the left face-off circle with just over three minutes remaining to an onrushing Cedric Paquette.
Paquette's one-timer proved to be the game-winner, putting Tampa Bay ahead 2-1 in the series. Game 4 is Wednesday night.
"This is really his coming-out party," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said about Hedman. "He was a monster tonight."
Hedman set up Tampa Bay's opening goal with a 120-foot pass from just left of his own net to Ryan Callahan just outside the Chicago blue line. Callahan carried it to the right circle and beat Chicago's Corey Crawford with a slap shot just over his glove.
But the Blackhawks might as well have stuck a one-way sign in the slot after that, taking 12 of the next 13 shots, with both Marian Hossa and Teuvo Tervainen missing empty nets.
"We had two empty nets and couldn't capitalize on either one," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said afterward.
"It looks like he's got some issues," he said about Bishop, even more ruefully, "but we just didn't get enough pucks on the net."
At one point during the first period, during which the Hawks piled up a 19-7 advantage in shots, Bishop struggled to get to his feet. Then, just inside the six-minute mark, he let a slap shot from Brad Richards trickle out of the webbing of his glove and into the net to tie the game 1-1.
"In the first, I gave away way too many rebounds. As the game went on," Bishop said, "I felt more comfortable."
The biggest in-game threat to his health came from Chicago forward Brandon Saad, who forced a takeaway in the Tampa Bay zone and rushed the net. As he plowed into the crease and Bishop, Saad's left arm crashed into the keeper's helmet, flattening Bishop and earning a penalty for goalie interference.
Although Bishop lay on the ice for a minute recovering, no one even asked about that crash afterward. Instead, Tampa Bay's paranoid responses to queries about Bishop's previous injury — which has already dominated the series discussion since he was pulled at the end of Game 2 — continued without let-up.
Cooper said he met with the goalie several times during the day, not giving Bishop the OK to start until a final "eye test" just before the game.
"We talked a few times," Bishop acknowledged. "It was going to take a lot not to play in the Stanley Cup."
Asked whether he was risking long-term damage to his health, he added, "I don't know."
Cooper said he "would not put anyone in the game in harm's way." But when asked point-blank what was the "it" he referred to repeatedly when discussing Bishop, Cooper simply smiled and said, "That will have to wait for when this series ends."
Against a Blackhawks team that still boasts the core of two Stanley Cup-winning sides, more than a few hockey experts predicted the Lightning would be hanging on by their fingernails at this point. But they've kept Chicago's offense in check — especially stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who have only a point between them — and flipped the script, using the lack of respect as a mantra.
"He's been off the charts," Brian Boyle said about Hedman, "but really, we've had a bunch of guys like that here the last two years. We get to see that every day in practice. But now that we're on national TV, it seems like everybody else is catching up."