How to watch
Start time: 7:00 PM EST / 4:00 PM PST
In Canada: CityTV, Sportsnet East/360 (English), TVA Sports (French)
In the Lightning region: SUN
Streaming: NHL.tv/NHL Live
Montreal Canadiens fans were cautiously optimistic about the team’s chances of success on the annual end-of-December road trip as the team racked up wins, largely from quality defensive and goaltending performances in the opening weeks of the month. Those feelings turned to apprehension when their voyage to Western Canada ahead of the holiday break was christened by a frustrating loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
The Canadiens responded with two wins to start the trip and ensure at least a split in the four games to played before Christmas. A feeling of dread began to build after a 4-3 loss in the third game versus the Edmonton Oilers, but the Canadiens wrapped things up with a convincing 6-2 win in Winnipeg. Montreal is now 7-4 in December, claiming 12 of the last 16 points available to them.
Confidence is steadily returning to the club and the fanbase. The Habs are going into the second phase of their road swing looking to pile up a few more wins rather than hoping to avoid a few losses. It begins with the second game of the season versus the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
Tale of the Tape
|54.2% (2nd)||Corsi-for pct.||52.6% (6th)|
|3.22 (11th)||Goals per game||3.51 (2nd)|
|3.13 (20th)||Goals against per game||3.17 (22nd)|
|22.6% (9th)||PP%||29.6% (1st)|
|75.2% (27th)||PK%||80.5% (16th)|
When the schedule gets released, this trip to the Southern United States is usually highlighted as one of the key stretches of the season. Along with the sequence of games played in California (which will happen in mid-March this time), it’s a tour of some tough teams that often gives Montreal an indication of where they stand in the league.
The division rivals met on December 29 on last year’s trip. Then, the Lightning were already beginning to run away with the Presidents’ Trophy, leading the league by six points over the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs, and having fallen just seven times in regulation through 38 contests.
Montreal fared well offensively that game, putting up five goals through 40 minutes to take a lead into the second intermission. The third period belong to the Lightning, however, and Adam Erne netted the game-tying and game-winning goals in the final frame to secure a 6-5 win.
The victory was one of seven consecutive the Lightning amassed during that stretch, and they were held to fewer than five goals just once in that span. That wasn’t even their longest streak of the year; runs of eight (earlier in December) and 10 wins (through February) were also recorded during one of the greatest regular-season performances in NHL history.
One this is clear at this point: the 2019-20 Lightning are not the 2018-19 Lightning. Tampa Bay is not only out of contention for the NHL’s top record, they’re not currently even in a wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. They have played fewer games than much of their competition, but even on points percentage they’re on the outside looking in.
Their season on its own can’t be qualified a bad one; they’re generally playing well enough to win and have a goal differential higher than many clubs above them. It’s mostly the comparison to that juggernaut from a season ago — with many of the same players still on the roster — that has followers and probably the players themselves wondering why they’ve lost their spark.
As far as Montreal is concerned, their approach shouldn’t change much from how they prepared a season ago. Then it was a matter of using the Lightning as a measuring stick, now the motivation is keeping a close competitor in the wild-card chase at bay. The Habs still need to bring their best game to the ice, and make up for a home loss to Tampa Bay in October.
The Canadiens got Victor Mete back in the previous game, helping to solidify the defence with the return of a regular top-four member. It was announced yesterday that Jesperi Kotkaniemi has fully recovered from his concussion and is ready to play once more. It’s not all good news on the injury front, however, as Joel Armia’s injury sustained during the game versus the Jets seems to be one that will keep him out for at least the rest of December.