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Canadiens vs Lightning: Game preview, start time, & TV schedule

Can the Habs avoid a season sweep, and finally break the Bolts?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With a win over one of the NHL's southeastern-most squads on Saturday night, the Montreal Canadiens reclaimed their stake to first place in the NHL's Eastern Conference. If they want to hold off their closest competitors, they need another win tonight.

The New York Rangers are the Habs' closest pursuers. The Blueshirts lost in regulation to the Washington Capitals on Sunday, wasting their first chance to close Montreal's one point lead in the conference standings. The Rangers still have a game in hand on Montreal, though, meaning that the Habs need two points if they want to maintain control of their own destiny.

The Canadiens more immediate concern is their opponent this evening, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Each team will play their 77th game of the 2014-15 season this evening, and heading in, the Canadiens have a three point lead in the race for the division crown.

The Bolts' clinching a playoff berth is a formality at this point, as the next point earned by the Lightning or lost by the Ottawa Senators will affirm Tampa's attendance. Atlantic Division seeding, however, is a much more contentious proposition.

With a regulation win tonight, Tampa sits only one point back of Montreal with the tie-breaker in hand, setting up a race to the finish. If the Habs emerge with two points, they'll sit five up on Tampa with only five games to go, making it much more likely that they'll be the team enjoying home ice advantage through at least two playoff rounds.

How to Watch

Start time: 7:30 PM ET
In the Canadiens region (French): RDS
In the Canadiens region (English):
Sportsnet East
In the Lightning region: SUN
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice

Tale of the Tape

Canadiens Statistic Lightning
47-21-8 Record 46-23-7
5-3-2 L10 Record 6-3-2
48.7 Score-Adjusted Fenwick % 53.5
200 Goals For 244
169
Goals Against 198
1.18 5v5 Goal Ratio 1.28
16.2 PP% 17.7
84.1 PK% 83.5

Know Your Enemy

Injuries created an interesting dynamic last time out, and the Lightning will again be hampered by them tonight.

Trade deadline acquisition Braydon Coburn is still not recovered from the injury he suffered when he first played Montreal as a member of the Bolts. Another defender, Jason Garrison, has not traveled to Montreal. Finally, Cedric Paquette injured his leg making an empty net save, and will be a game-time decision.

Andrej Sustr or Mark Barberio may get a chance to jump up to the second pair, while call-up Luke Witkowski looks like the man who will join the D corps in Garrison's absence. The 24-year-old brings size and is noted to bring some scoring ability, though he has not yet registered a point in 10 games this season. His deployment in the big leagues has been all over the place, and his game-by-game success has varied accordingly.

Up front, former Quebec Remparts star Jonathan Marchessault will fill-in. Marchessault, also 24, has only three NHL games to his name, but has been a prolific scorer at the AHL level, clocking in at 0.85 points per game. While Paquette has established himself in his third line role, Tampa should lose little skill if  they sub him out for tonight's game.

Otherwise, the fearsome Tampa line-up will be mostly intact. Ondrej Palat has returned since missing the last game against Montreal, reuniting the potent "TKO" line with Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. While Vladislav Namestnikov has proven himself a skilled player at the NHL level, he can't fill Palat's shoes just yet. After an off game against Montreal two weeks ago, the Habs will again have to look out for a very dangerous Tampa second line.

Last Time Out

If there is one play most likely to be associated with Montreal's last clash with the Lightning, it is Max Pacioretty's unfortunate give away to Steven Stamkos. Carrying the puck toward the Tampa blue line, the Habs' top forward abruptly and inexplicably dropped the puck directly the Lightning sniper. Stamkos jumped on the opportunity, taking the puck and turning in on Carey Price. With a perfectly aimed half-slapper, Stamkos extended Tampa's lead to two. Montreal would never catch-up.

While the play makes an excellent highlight, it is not representative of the effort put forth by Max or Montreal that night. Working mostly against Tampa's top line of Stamkos, Alex Killorn, and Ryan Callahan, and without the benefit of a particularly generous deployment or defensively responsible linemates, Pacioretty played his opponents to a possession draw at even strength. The potential future captain has been an exemplary two-way player all year, and while it may not have shown up on SportsCentre, that game against Tampa was no exception.

The theme of the Stamkos goal was present in the Lightning's other two markers: unfortunate breakdowns at unfortunate times. Tampa got on the board when Andrei Markov slid to block what was likely a harmless Valtteri Filppula shot, changing its trajectory and putting it past Carey Price.

The third marker was equally unfortunate, as Tom Gilbert yielded a single step to Victor Hedman, and couldn't get it back. Hedman flew past the unprepared Canadiens defender, and put the eventual game-winner past Price.

It was after that third goal, as many were ready to turn off the game, that the Habs found their legs. They put in a herculean effort in the second half of the contest, but could manage only two goals against a staunch Ben Bishop.

For a team that has now lost four straight to the squad they swept last spring, discussions around victories of periods or half-games probably ring hollow. For the Canadiens, however, that time represents the first real momentum they've held over their divisional rivals this season. With only one further opportunity to prove themselves against a likely playoff adversary, the Habs will have to build off of that this evening.