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Increased urgency; Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens preview

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Tonight is one of three remaining head-to-head confrontations between the Lightning and Canadiens. Three opportunities for either club to do what it can to make a direct claim for the 2015 Atlantic Division title.

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Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

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

The third of five meetings between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens takes place this evening with more weight to it than the first two encounters where Les Bolts ran roughshod over Les Habitants de Montreal. Tampa Bay took down the Canadiens at Amalie Arena back in October (which seems like ancient history now) and ventured to Montreal in January, handcuffing the Habs yet again.

Things change, times have changed too. Things were more casual back in October and January when the clubs squared off. There was less of an urgency to make a statement. Montreal has that urgency now as there are fewer opportunities to shut the Lightning down during the regular season and secure the regular-season division title...at least in head-to-head competition.

For the Lightning, it's not just about shutting the Habs down; it's about catching up in the points department. Montreal has 90 points in 66 games played while the Lightning has 88 in 67 games. That's what adds urgency from Tampa Bay's end: There are only 15 more opportunities to catch up to and surpass Montreal in the standings, all while Montreal has one more chance to win the division (...if they keep pace with the Lightning, and the Lightning keep pace with them, over the remaining month of the season).

The Canadiens have a trump card in their pocket, by way of the crease, in the name of Carey Price. Price is having a Hart Trophy worthy season for Les Habitants, doing workhorse duty (55 games played in) with a 37-13-3 record, an imposing 1.89 goals-against average as well as posting a jaw-dropping .936 save percentage.

The counter point is that against the Tampa Bay Lightning (2 games played) Price has been anything but imposing: a 4.91 GAA and a .864 save percentage. That doesn't add up, that doesn't make sense. That goes for the Canadiens effort in general against the Lightning as they've been outscored 11-3 in two games played. That likely won't stand, and if it does (continued Tampa Bay domination) it makes for a curious conversation about how far both teams will go come the start of the NHL playoffs come April.

J.T. Brown remains sidelined with his upper-body injury, Vladislav Namestnikov remains on the Lightning roster and in the lineup tonight. It's even worth guessing Brown ends up out for Thursday - that's not doubting his recovery as-so-much an opinion of my own that Brown returning against a physical (and desperate) Bruins team might not be the wisest choice. Just an opinion.

Mark Barberio is in the defensive pairings tonight on the bottom pairing with Andrej Sustr again. Matt Carle is not ready for a return just yet, so in general the lineup stays the same except in the crease. Ben Bishop gets the nod. Bishop is 32-11-3 on the season, a 2.39 GAA and a .912 save percentage. Against Les Habs, though, it's Bishop who has put up the Hart worthy numbers (if you can do that against a single opponent): a 1.50 GAA, a .923 save percentage. Like Price's performance against the Lightning, those numbers likely won't stand (given a long enough timeline, everyone's survival rate drops to zero) but if they do... if they do? There's just one hell of a conversation to have about what's in store for this Tampa Bay team.

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