Ben Bishop is a great goaltender.
Let’s get that out of the way immediately, because it’s something that many Dallas Stars fans have somehow forgotten over the past year. Yes, Anton Khudobin has had an amazing year, both in the playoffs and regular season. But that doesn’t somehow mean Bishop has to be bad — you can have two great goaltenders.
The real issue with Bishop, and it has been since long before he came to Dallas, is that he has trouble staying healthy. You can be the best goaltender in the world, but it won’t matter if you’re not 100%.
After missing the past eight games due to being “unfit to play,” Bishop made a surprise start in net last night against the Colorado Avalanche. Although after the game Bishop said he “felt great”, his play was clearly not up to his usually high standard — his return to the crease ended very badly, with Bishop allowing four goals on 19 shots against before getting yanked.
During those 14 minutes, Bishop looked okay — healthy enough to play, at least. You would think he was horrible looking at his statistics, but that wouldn’t do him justice. Especially when you consider that the Stars absolutely abandoned him for those first 14 minutes, in which they were outshot 19-3.
Both his teammates and his opponents seem to share the mindset that Bishop was dealt a very, very bad hand:
Andrew Cogliano asked if the team let Bishop down. He was that "would be an understatement."— Saad Yousuf (@SaadYousuf126) September 1, 2020
Cogliano said the start to the game "was an absolute joke" and "we were atrocious."
“It was a tough start for him, to not play for a while and face that many shots.” -- Andre Burakovsky of @Avalanche on seeing Ben Bishop getting the surprise start for @DallasStars— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) September 1, 2020
It’s also worth noting that when Khudobin went in to relieve Bishop, he let in a goal on the first shot against, counting as Colorado’s fifth goal of the night. Given how badly the Stars’ skaters looked, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Khudobin would have let in many of those same goals himself had he gotten the start.
Bishop, for what it’s worth, had no problem taking the blame. He said that while he felt fine physically, he failed to come up with the saves he needed to, which is ultimately his responsibility. But his team was having none of it — interim head coach Rick Bowness refused to blame Bishop, instead redirecting criticism towards himself:
“You’re pointing fingers at Ben Bishop, you’re pointing fingers in the wrong direction. None of us were ready to go tonight. Your first finger is pointed at me, and then work your way down. Ben Bishop is not near the top.”
That brings us to the main topic of today: why exactly did Rick Bowness decide to start Bishop over Khudobin?
On paper, it’s a rather simple answer — it was the second night of a back-to-back, so if Bishop was healthy enough to play, then he should get the start. No reason to tire out Khudobin and risk him to injury by overworking him.
I think it’s also important to look at the bigger picture of Bishop’s start. The Stars went into the evening with a 3-1 series lead over the Avalanche, which means they just needed one win in the next three games to advance to the next round. That means they could afford to lose Game 5, giving them a good opportunity to see how Bishop looked in an actual playoff game, not just practice.
Yes, the result was horrific — and, in a lot of ways, not even really Bishop’s fault. Just look at the way the team in front of him played during that first period. Anyone in net likely would have suffered the same fate.
But imagine if the Stars decided to ride the hot goaltender in Khudobin and won. Now fast forward to the Western Conference Finals where you might possibly have a back-to-back against the Vegas Golden Knights or the Vancouver Canucks. Or maybe Khudobin is having a bad game or, hockey gods forbid, gets injured himself.
Now you’re in a situation where it’s been even longer since Bishop has played a meaningful game, one in which the scenario might be completely different. Instead of holding a 3-1 series lead, they could be down 3-1 themselves, or perhaps he has to come into a game in the middle of double overtime in a crucial Game 3.
Your hope would be that Bishop is a great goaltender and that he would fare just fine, but without any meaningful action up to that point, would you really know that he was fine? That he was not only healthy, but in playoff shape?
That’s a gamble you don’t want to make. It’s better to try and gauge where Bishop is at earlier in a lower risk situation. Like, say, a Game 5 in which you have a 3-1 series lead and are facing your opponent’s third string goaltender.
Of course, that leads us to another issue altogether — if your goal was to properly evaluate Bishop’s status, then is less than 14 minutes in which your team played your worst hockey of the playoffs really the best way to do that? Would Bishop have looked just fine with better play in front of him, or would he have continued to let in goals anyways?
Again, you don’t want to deal with that uncertainty. It’s for this reason that Bowness actually considered putting Bishop back into the game, and it’s why there’s a non-zero possibility that Bishop could see some action in Game 6, another game the Stars can “afford to lose”:
This is a complete gut feel and as we've been told, the Stars have information that we don't. But based off how things were handled/commented you have to imagine the Stars are heavily considering giving Bishop the Game 6 start.— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) September 1, 2020
On the other hand, it might not be worth the risk. After all, Colorado is a very good hockey team, coming into the playoffs as a Stanley Cup favorite. For as well as Khudobin has played this postseason, he still let in 15 goals over the first four games against the Avalanche — the Stars only held a 3-1 series lead because they somehow managed to score even more.
As we saw last night, if the Stars can’t both contain Colorado’s offense and light up the scoreboard themselves, then they’re in deep trouble. If Bishop starts but isn’t playoff game ready, then we could see a result similar to last night. And then you’re looking at a Game 7 winner-take-all in which the Avalanche have all the momentum and you’re left asking yourself why you couldn’t just take care of business back in Game 5.
So ultimately, no, I wouldn’t start Bishop for Game 6. I’d personally rather take the risk of not knowing how fit he is to play than give a team as dangerous as Colorado a chance to come back and win the series. Take care of business and then consider giving him that shot in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals instead.
But as far as starting him last night is concerned? Yeah, I’m fine with that. It was arguably the best shot the Stars would ever get at seeing how Bishop would look in a playoff game. Again, the result was horrific, but hindsight is 20/20, and there’s no guarantee that the Avalanche wouldn’t have lit up Khudobin the same way.
In the end, it’s best for the Stars to just wash their hands of last night’s game. Take note of your failures, figure out how to remedy them, and move on.