For the Montreal Canadiens, the month of December has been a nightmare. For the team they're about to face, the entire 2015 season has been something of a bad dream.
The Habs have had a horrid 24 days leading up to this game, but despite all that, they remain well-positioned to claim one of their division's three playoff spots. The Tampa Bay Lightning, meanwhile, have gone from a shoe-in Stanley Cup contender to an outfit in the midst of a dogfight for a playoff position. Heading into tonight's game, their goal remains three points away.
Thanks to their improbable slide, though, the Canadiens sit only four points above their Floridian rivals, making this game as important to them as it is to their most recent playoff opponents. Throw in Montreal's seven straight regular season losses to the Lightning, and this game takes on even more gravity.
Ever since things began to snowball for the Habs, their sole focus has been putting a stop to the losing streak looming over them. Tonight, they have two jobs to do.
How to Watch
Tale of the Tape
|53.7||Score-Adjusted Corsi %||52.3|
|1.04||5v5 Goal Ratio||1.23|
Know Your Enemy
The Canadiens have felt the sting of injury this season, and the Tampa Bay Lightning know the same unpleasant sensation. Last season, their kid line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov was one of the NHL's most dominant. This season, however, only Kucherov has remained healthy, affecting the team's offensive production.
Palat and Johnson have each played about half the schedule, and even when on the ice, neither has achieved the same dynamic production they managed last season. Meanwhile, offensive catalyst-in-waiting Jonathan Drouin has also been hurt, depriving the Lightning of his expected contributions. All of this adds up to a team scoring nearly one full goal per game less at even strength, forcing them to deviate from last year's identity as an goal-scoring juggernaut.
There is some good news for the Bolts, though. Ben Bishop again finds himself among the league's best goaltenders, helping to make Tampa Bay the league's stingiest team at 5v5. On the offensive front, Johnson and Drouin may return as early as tonight, while other contributors like Brian Boyle are also drawing near to a return. And even with that contingent out of the lineup, Tampa is heating up: the team is averaging four goals per game over their last five contests.
These Bolts may not be the team that endlessly antagonized the Habs, but they are a strong opponent nonetheless. For a Habs team now fighting to reclaim their division lead, tonight's game marks an important test.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens couldn't pass any of their Tampa Bay tests last season, and their futility culminated in a 5-3 loss to close out the month of March. The Lightning came out at a furious pace, doing all in their power to break down the Habs' defence and beat Carey Price. Luckily, the Habs' superstar was up to the task, allowing the Habs enough latitude to find their footing and generate some chances of their own.
A line change gaffe gave the game-opening goal to Vladislav Namestnikov, but Max Pacioretty equalized while Dale Weise looked on from the penalty box. That lead help up for barely 30 seconds, and when Kucherov made it a two goal Montreal deficit, the damage was done. The Lightning got a win they deserved in a game in which they controlled the run of play, putting the finishing touches on their season sweep.
Tonight, the Habs can't count on the luxury of a goaltender who can buy them a period's grace to get their game going, but if the Washington loss offered any bright spot, it may be that their starter is slowly regaining his traction. If that bears out, it leaves the Habs in an advantageous position: if Mike Condon can do his job tonight, perhaps his team can do two.