There are several reasons that the Canadiens current slump could be characterized as unlikely. For example, a team that kept up with the top defensive teams in the NHL (in terms of goals against/game) has morphed into 2001 playoffs Roman Cechmanek for the last three games. To make matters worse, the losses have come against a three beatable teams. This season's results aside, statistics conclusively demonstrate that the Leafs are inferior to the Canadiens. The Philadelphia Flyers have been ravaged by injuries, and played the Canadiens in Montreal at a time when their season, for all intents and purposes, is over. Finally, while the Pittsburgh Penguins are a perennial playoff contender, the Canadiens were lucky enough to face them at a time when they were down three of the best offensive players in the league and a top pair defenceman. Eventually, things are going to turn around, and tonight's game with the Tampa Bay Lightning is an excellent candidate for that turn-around to take place.
If the Flyers season was over when they played the Canadiens, the Lightning's season has been cremated and ceremonially spread about the Bay. The Lightning sit in the Eastern Conference's 13th place, as close to the Panthers as they are to the playoffs. The Lightning have so far been unsuccessful in two attempts to beat the Canadiens, losing on both occasions by a four to three score. While their quest to end their season series with the Southeast division has now been derailed, the Canadiens can still take an impressive eleventh victory against the NHL weakest grouping.
The Lightning roster has undergone some changes since the Canadiens last played them, most notably dealing Calder trophy candidate Cory Conacher to the Senators for goaltender Ben Bishop. Outside of two weaker starts against the Penguins and Capitals, Bishop has been strong for the Lightning, and he was especially strong when he last met the Canadiens. Bishop battled the Canadiens as a member of the Senators earlier this year, stopping 44 of 45 shots to earn a victory. For his seven game stint with Tampa, Bishop is 2-3-1 with a .916 save percentage. Regardless of his value relative to Conacher's, Bishop is an upgrade over Anders Lindback and Cedrick Desjardins.
Another change to the Lightning organization is at the Head Coach position, where Guy Boucher has been replaced by Jon Cooper. Cooper will seek to reverse the Lightning's fortunes at the defensive end of the ice, where the team is among the league leaders in goals against per game. The Lightning have failed to effectively drive possession this season, and combined with their poor penalty kill, they have simply allowed their opponents to score too many goals.
Conversely, the Lightning have been highly effective at scoring goals of their own. The Lightning are among the top three teams in the league in scoring, and have a solid powerplay to boot. With weapons like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis competing for the league lead, the Canadiens will need to recapture the strong defensive play that has evaded them of late.
Part of the reason for the Canadiens defensive struggles of late, in addition to a bout of horrendous luck, has been their inability to rely on three effective defensive pairs. For most of the year, the Canadiens have been able to matchup well up and down the lineup, but with Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin out of the lineup, and the players who are in the lineup playing poorly, the Canadiens have allowed eighteen goals in their last three games. Ryan White and Colby Armstrong will join their top-4 calibre colleagues on the sidelines, to be replaced by Gabriel Dumont and one of Nathan Beaulieu and Yannick Weber. The Lightning have few, if any, injuries of note.
The Canadiens goaltending situation is somewhat scrambled at the moment, and Carey Price has outperformed his back-up in their respective careers against the Lightning. Price is 8-6 with a .906 save percentage, while Peter Budaj is 2-1 while saving shots at only an .880 rate. With any internal schedule that Michel Therrien may have had in mind likely out the window, either goalie seems equally likely to start. Whether the same keeper is able to finish the game will go a long way in determining the Canadiens' success.