HELSINKI – Entering the 2013 tournament, Team USA goaltender Ben Bishop had a perfect record from his 2010 appearance to defend. Before this tournament, his World Championship save percentage was a neat 100. Of course, he only played one period in a game against Kazakhstan in Germany, making five saves.
“They were all breakaways,” Bishop says, laughing.
He made twice as many saves in the first period of the game against Latvia, and while the name Manuel Latusa probably didn’t mean much to Bishop before the tournament, it was Latusa who beat Bishop in the Worlds for the first time.
Three years ago Bishop was an emerging prospect who had played six NHL games for St. Louis Blues, the team that drafted him in the third round in 2005. Last year, he was traded to the Ottawa Senators, and this year to the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he was the starter for the last month of the season. He played 22 games this season, and posted a 92.0 save percentage.
Bishop, 26, is still not an established NHL star, but he is still the man of the future, and in Helsinki, he is Team USA’s starter, and has already made 37 saves. (Not all of them have been breakaways). In his two games in the tournament, wins against Austria and Latvia, Bishop has posted a 90.24 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average.
And, yes, at 201 centimetres, Bishop is an impressively towering image in the American crease.
With the NHL regular season ending just days before the World Championship, Team USA didn’t have much time to get ready, so the team is still in the middle of the gelling process.
“There’s no time to prepare, we had two practices, and then played games, but we’ve all played the game a million times. Once you get together, it takes a couple of games to get the chemistry together, but it’s not like anything changes drastically,” Bishop says.
Even though skaters often say it takes some time to adjust to the larger international ice sheet, Bishop’s take on it is a lot more straight-forward, and borderline philosophical. His focus is simple.
“The big rink is no different, the game’s a little slower because there’s more time. I love it, though, because I like to play the puck,” he says.
Especially in the game against Latvia, Bishop was quick to drop the puck after a glove save, and send a breakout pass to his defensemen.
“I love playing the puck,” he says again, with a smile.
For a team that met a week ago at the airport, getting two games, and two wins, under their belt is a good thing heading into a game against Russia, which is expected to be a better yardstick than Austria or Latvia.
“Sure it helps since we’ve never played together, but we’d be pumped for Russia no matter what,” he says.
While Bishop may now his own teammates, he can’t say the same of many of the players on the other teams. That doesn’t matter to Bishop, either.
“I just worry about myself, not the other team. I just prepare the same way I always do. I know more about the Russian players [than Latvian players] but nothing changes. I still have to go out and make the saves,” he says.
“But I think all teams here are pretty close. Austria and Latvia are good teams and they work hard. No team can just go out and dominate in this tournament. Anybody can win anybody. Just look at the scores: Sweden lost, Canada lost, Finland almost lost,” he adds.
It’s been 80 years since the U.S. last won the World Championship, and nine years since the Americans left the tournament with a medal. Bishop says the team’s goal is crystal clear.
“We want to win the gold medal. We didn’t come over here to just play, we’re here to win,” he says.
For that, Team USA is going to need their big goalie play a series of big games.
“Goaltending is important, in any game. Always nice if the guys score goals, but it doesn’t always happen, so the goalie has to make the stops,” says Bishop.
In this game of chess on ice, Team USA coach Joe Sacco has something other coaches don’t have. His Bishop is also his king.