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Mid-season playoff action: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens preview

Tonight should have been the first meeting between the Lightning and the Canadiens. The Habs would like to forget there was a previous game this season, though.

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Mike Carlson/Getty Images

: Bell Centre, Montréal, Quebec
When: 7:30 PM EST | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio) | Twitter Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Eyes on the PrizeAll Habs

October 13th, 2014's game between the Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens wasn't supposed to be played in the original NHL scheduling for the 2014-15 season. The original intention was to have that game played in April 2015. The quirk that caused the shift in play-date was the 2015 NCAA women's basketball Final Four.

Suffice it to say, an October 13th game doesn't have the same weight as an April game between two playoff contenders and budding rivals... And an outright drubbing is a bit of a killjoy on the concept of budding rivalry; the bitterness isn't the same. It may or may not be outright dismissed by Montreal as a forgettable aberration. For all intents and purposes, the series begins with the Lightning having lost the past four* games to Les Habs; Montreal swept the Lightning in the 2014 playoffs and that's all that matters. A 7-1 loss in Tampa in October? Pssh, that's irrelevant.

Another quirk on the schedule for this game is the fact that Les Habs come into this game rolling on a six-game winning streak and having a 9-1-0 record in their past 10 games. They're tied at the top of the Atlantic Division with the Lightning (both teams having 54 points) but Montreal has the benefit of two games in-hand on Tampa Bay. That's two opportunities to separate themselves from the Lightning and build a lead.  They also benefit by way of hosting three of the remaining four games between the two clubs, starting tonight at Bell Centre.

It's January, it's only around the halfway mark for both clubs on the season, but this game has the weight of a playoff match to it (somewhat like the recent games between the Bolts and the mumps-laden Pittsburgh Penguins). This game matters to both clubs, or it should.  Though Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said in a recent post-game presser that "standings don't mean S-with-a-T," they certainly do when it's two teams who have direct effect on each other's playoff chances and seeding.

Ben Bishop starts in net for the Lightning tonight, which isn't unexpected in the least. It's worth noting that Bishop has not started games well in recent days, with the latest example being in Ottawa on Sunday night, allowing Kyle Turis to score on the opening shot of the game. Bishop also had a weak opening in Pittsburgh last week, though the entire game had enough weirdness to be dismissed in general. Bish's save percentage for that game was .700, his outing Sunday ended with a  .909 save percentage.

Inconsistent, yes, but formidable just the same... as long as a lapse doesn't dig Tampa Bay a hole that they can't climb out of.

RW J.T. Brown is expected to be in the bottom-six for the Lightning tonight, with Jon Drouin on his opposing wing on the fourth line. Drouin's expecting goose bumps as he plays his favorite team from childhood. Lightning fans have seen this before form players...  Some raise their game substantially when playing Les Habs in Montreal.  I don't know if we should expect anything similar from Drouin tonight, though; he may have seen time on the top lines with Steven Stamkos, but he (and Stamkos) didn't click this time around.

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