With the regular season quickly winding down, tonight’s game figures to have some pretty serious implications on the playoff picture. Thankfully for fans of the Canadiens, just about all of those implications rest with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With their win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, the Habs officially locked up their playoff spot. With a six point lead over the Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic division, that race is close to over, too. The Lightning, conversely, are trying to keep their competition going as long as possible.
The Lightning are three points back of the Boston Bruins for the second and final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, with one extra game in hand over the B’s.
Their chances at qualifying for the playoffs are a meager 27% according to hockeyviz.com, but considering that number was just 12% at the start of February, the Lightning have done well to hang around. Facing a Habs team that put the final nail in the coffins of both the Stars and Panthers this week, the Bolts will aim to keep surviving a little longer.
How to watch
Puck drop: 7:00 PM EDT / 4:00 PM PDT
In Canada: CITY (English), TVAS (French)
In the Lightning region: SUN
Elsewhere: NHL.tv/NHL Gamecentre Live, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|52.64||Score-adjusted Corsi %||51.25|
|1.22||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.93|
If you’re going to overcome long odds, you need the percentages on your side, and if there’s one thing Steve Yzerman’s club has been able to count on when they’ve faced the Habs the last few years, it’s solid goaltending. Long-time keeper Ben Bishop has a .931 save percentage in his 18 regular season games against Montreal, but with Bishop dealt to the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline, it looks like Andrei Vasilevskiy will face the Habs instead.
The 22-year-old former first round pick has taken the lion’s share of the starts in the stretch run, delivering wins in his last three outings and a 9-3-1 record since a disastrous five start losing streak around the end of January and start of February. Of course, even with better results of late, Vasilevskiy’s save percentage at even strength remains below league average on the season, with his .920 mark ever so slightly inferior to the numbers Al Montoya has posted in 2016-17.
Should Vasilevskiy not get the call, old pal Peter Budaj is Head Coach Jon Cooper’s other option. The Canadiens have already beaten Budaj twice this year, both when he was still a member of the Kings.
Whoever plays in the Lightning crease will be supporting the bid of a team that’s played very well over their last 25 games. Their shot metrics are outstanding, with the team allowing fewer shot attempts against than all but the Bruins and Kings. Meanwhile, the Lightning are solidly above average when it comes to shot generation.
While they’ve waited for Steven Stamkos to return, which could happen tonight, their offence has run through Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin, and Victor Hedman. With 38 goals on the season, Kucherov is one of only five players ahead of Max Pacioretty in that category, while Hedman’s 66 points would be good enough to lead the Habs, too.
As one might expect, both are key cogs in Tampa’s top-five powerplay, with Kucherov boasting 11 powerplay goals in his last 22 games. He’s done much of that damage shooting from the right circle, and SI has a closer look at the tactics Cooper has employed to create space for his star forward on the man advantage. The Canadiens may not have a great deal left to prove before the playoffs begin, but tonight’s game should represent a prime opportunity to see how their improving penalty kill holds up against one of the league’s best powerplays.
If the Canadiens are lucky, though, that preparation will be put toward deterring the strong powerplay of a potential playoff opponent like the Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets, or Bruins. If things go Montreal’s way tonight, it’ll be that much more likely that they won’t have to deal with the Lightning again until 2017-18.