The race to the finish continues: Lightning and Canadiens preview [UPDATED]

WHERE: Bell Centre, Montreal, Quebec
WHEN: 7:30 PM EST
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 620 WDAE (radio)
OPPONENT COVERAGEHabs Eyes on the PrizeHabs Blog

It's not as if the Lightning need to be reminded tonight's matchup is a must-win, as it's a truth that is hanging over every game the team plays form this point on in the season.

But I'm saying it anyway:  Tonight is a must-win for the Lightning.  Montreal is all of five points in front of the Bolts in the Eastern Conference playoff race.  To make that lead into seven points would be effectively shutting the door on attempting to get back into the playoff race.m  Indeed, anyone approaching the race as wide-open are forgetting that the window of opportunity is closing.  

With every win by the Canadiens, Bruins, Rangers and Thrashers, the Lightning are forced to win or fall back in the standings.  And every time they lose to these opponents, it doubly hurts their chances.

It's even become morally imperative that the team does not go to overtime in tonight's matchup.  Giving a point to the Habs would be to allow them to keep pace in the East.  If the Lightning want to make the playoffs, their cause is int he Win column, the regulation win column at that.  There have been no more moral victories to be had this season.  It's only absolutes of win-or-lose.

At this point in the season, it's easy to understand how players learn to hate the opposition.  You need to have that kind of attitude in order not to take an opponent lightly.  It's not out of a total disrespect (well, that's subjective) but out of drive and frustration brought on by the opponent in question.

Yet, hearing Vincent Lecavalier tell a crowd that the Montreal Canadiens were a team he hated during February 25th's Unplugged event was shocking, even to me.  This is Vinny Lecavalier, the guy who has been listed as an imminent acquisition for Les Habs since he broke into the NHL.  

And yet, here it is.  Thrown out casually with the Washington Capitals (roughly 0:50 into the video)

But what do you expect?  When a team hounds a player as much as Les Habs have hounded Lecavalier, you get annoyed.  This has nothing to do with the city of Montreal (which, undoubtedly Vincent loves).  This has everything to do with their hockey team, however.

But while tonight's focus will likely be on Vincent Lecavalier, as it always is when the Bolts are in Montreal, the focus for Lightning fans should be on the condition of Martin St. Louis.  Marty got his bell rung real good during Saturday's victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.  He's listed as probable for tonight's game but one has to wonder if Martin will suffer after effects of the undisclosed head injury?

Meanwhile, Steven Stamkos will be looking to extend his point streak to 17 games tonight.  The second-year center reached the 40-goal plateau on Saturday and is on a pace for 51 for the season.  During his 16 game point streak, Stamkos has registered 15 goals and 14 assists.  

One other point to make is that newly acquired RW Teddy Purcell has three points in his first two games with the Lightning.  It's of note because while we're seeing flashes of what's to come of the pairing of Teddy and Vinny Lecavalier, they have yet to truly click from extensive play and practice.  That's forthcoming, however.

Things could get ugly on special teams tonight.  The Lightning go into this matchup with the 21st ranked penalty kill unit (80.6%), and they're facing Montreal's dominant power play which is ranked second in the NHL (23.9%).  Conversely, the Lightning power play is ranked 11th in the league (18.3%) at this time.  They should be matched up well against Montreal's penalty kill unit which is ranked 9th in the league (83.2%).

Antero Niittymaki will likely be in net for the Bolts.  

[Note by John Fontana, 03/09/10 12:53 PM EST ] To compliment Martin St. Louis' questionable status, Ryan Malone is out tonight with an undisclosed "upper body injury".  

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