Sunday was important in a divisional competition sense, as was Saturday for that matter even if the Buffalo Sabres are irrelevant at this juncture (except as spoilers.)
Tonight...? Tonight is huge. Tonight isn't a playoff caliber game... it basically is the playoffs 2 weeks early or so. The potential for clinching a playoff berth is on the line as well, but it comes with some necessary help:
For the Lightning to clinch a spot in the playoffs tonight, they would need all of these WSH to lose to Dallas, a W against MTL and NJ loss— Thomas R. Fernandez (@trfernandez2190) April 1, 2014
The storied Montreal Canadiens come to Tampa as the first opponent for the Lightning during their season-ending six game homestand. Les Habitants stand two points in front of the Bolts in the Atlantic Division standings. They sit in second place; Tampa Bay sits in third... There are your #2 and #3 seeds in the division, and your first round matchup (...unless either team suffers an unforeseen collapse to close the regular season out; unlikely but you never know.)
Though the matchup is already set, the game is important because of the seeding issue; we're talking home-ice advantage for the first round here. If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Lightning would have to go to Montreal to open up the series. If the Bolts were to get ahead of the Canadiens in the standings during this final seven game stretch of the season, Les Habs would have to come to Tampa to play the opening games of their first round season.
While Lightning players have traditionally excelled when playing in Montreal, this is not the team of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis any longer; this is the team of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Alex Killorn and Mark Barberio both have ties to Quebec, but neither compare to the Ile Bizzard and Laval Quebec natives and their contributions to the team offensively.
If home ice is truly at stake in this game, the playoffs start now.
Not much chatter coming off Twitter today from the Lightning beat writers, who are probably working on feature stories as well as giving game day notes. Erik Erlendsson tweeted out line rushes:
Lines this morning: Brown-Stamkos-Purcell; Palat-Filppula-Callahan; Killorn-Johnson-Kucherov; Malone-Thompson-Panik; Pyatt-Kunyk-Crombeen— Erik Erlendsson (@erlendssonTBO) April 1, 2014
J.T. Brown with Steven Stamkos? Intriguing. Brown has been the dependable defensive forward on the third line during most of his season in Tampa Bay, showing flashes of ability that compared to Martin St. Louis in days of yore ("now if he could only just finish!") While I take the line as a work-in-progress and not set in stone, it does show ample faith in Brown that he can do more than the gritty work that he'd been assigned most of the season.
With someone moving up to the top-six, someone has to move down and it's Alex Killorn in this case. A solid hockey player, Killorn might be more apt in the third line role (and with Tyler Johnson centering him) than in a top-six forward role. It's not like he's had a crappy season though, with 18 goals and 23 assists in 75 games. He's played with Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell in the second line role most of the season, though that line is kaput at this point. The fact Killorn and Purcell spent more time trying to enable Filppula and take their own shots did hurt. It just didn't hurt Killorn as much as it did the now-offensively-gun-shy Purcell who is averse to the idea of shooting the puck.
Back to the overall matchup of tonight: Les Habs are 8-2-0 in their past 10 while the Lightning is 7-1-2. As Lightning fans know, the team had an 11 game point
streak fluke snapped at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday. The Canadiens, on the other hand, have won their past two games.
Special teams for the clubs is comparable and differing; their power plays are effective at current, with Tampa Bay a tenth of a point ahead of Montreal in the league standings (18.3% efficiency as to 18.2%.) The penalty kills however... Eh. Tampa Bay's kill-rate is at 80.3%, good for 23rd in the league. Montreal is a potent 85.9% which puts them at #3 overall in the NHL. Another statistical point worth noting is Montreal giving up 30.6 shots a game on average compared to Tampa Bay's 29.3. Les Habs are taking one less shot a game or so than the Lightning though.
What I take form all this is that Tampa Bay has opportunities at even strength, but if they get emotional (and this is a playoff game, that's how it needs to be approached) and start getting called for penalties, they're tempting fate and potentially handing this game to Montreal. This should be close, regardless.
Ben Bishop will
be ridden into the ground again start in net for the Lightning, it's unclear as of this writing who the Habs will have in net.You wouldn't expect anyone besides Bishop to start for Tampa in this case, but his third game in four days is asking for trouble long-term.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Remember that today marks the start of Bolts broadcasts moving to Fox Sports Florida for the majority of the remainder of the season; five of seven games will air on that station, one on WTOG CW 44 and one lone remaining telecast will air on Sun Sports.
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