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Season finale; Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens preview

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The Habs own the series 3-0 for the 2016 season... But the Lightning are playoff bound.

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Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports


Where:
Bell Centre, Montréal, Quebec | When: 7 PM ET
Radio: 970 AM WFLA - Online Stream | Television: Fox Sports Florida | Twitter: Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Habs Eye on the Prize, All Habs

This is a long way - in time and physical distance - from where things were when we started the 2015-16 NHL season. The questions that started the season have been answered in so many ways while others are still active (with plenty of new ones created, too). It's a process, ladies and gentlemen... The process and goal that play out in a season is the process of becoming, the process with riddles, inquiries incidents and answers is storytelling.

The story of today, the most pressing one that applies to the Tampa Bay Lightning's immediate future, is who the Bolts will play in the 2016 NHL playoffs opening round. That question hasn't been officially answered with the result of today - The Red Wings lost to the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins lost to the Ottawa Senators; the Red Wings season is concluded while Boston has 1 more game to be played. EDIT/CORRECTION: The Bruins season is just as done as Detroit's.  When writing, both games did finish but NHL.com was shwoing Boston having 81 games played, not 82. Tampa Bay is due to play Detroit in the Atlantic Division semifinals for the second straight season.

Of course this is a game preview for the Lightning and that story is dulled down by way of the game not being relevant or having weight. It's like preseason, if you will, where guys are tried out and those banged up are sat because the forthcoming season is of mandatory competitiveness. Case in point, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Ryan Callahan are all out of the lineup tonight. Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times notes how Kucherov has "been seen limping" recently. That - banged up status - has been following this team around for a while now.

What if the game tonight had more weight or relevance? If this was game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals instead of game 82 of the regular season, all three would find the strength to play (...and Steven Stamkos, even if his current physical status stayed static until then, would probably be deemed a game time decision; that's just hockey doing it's physical wow factor).

Andrei Vasilevskiy will start between the pipes for the Lightning. Knowing the physical status of the players (as noted above) and how it'd be wiser to protect Ben Bishop's overall state of being tonight, this isn't just a wise move - it's one that should have been expected weeks ago. It sure was argued days ago. The downside of Vasy starting a game like this is phone-it-in status that may come by way of some of the Lightning starters. While Jonathan Drouin, Jonathan Marchessault and Cedric Paquette might want to put their best foot forward with the team in the Quebec spotlight, it wouldn't be wrong to expect the others on the roster holding the line and not going too heavy.

Then again, I could be dead wrong. There is relevance to this game when it comes to the season: Montreal has the chance to sweep the Lightning. Les Habs, after their season took a wrong turn with the loss of Carey Price and opposition topping their style of play in general, 4-3 (SO), 4-2, and 3-0. Les Habs are now 37-38-6 for 80 points, but they're also in 5th place in the division - ahead of Buffalo and Toronto by 1 and 11 points, respectively.

And the Lightning could be swept by then? That shows you how the season in general has been a challenge and hasn't lived up to the overhyped "Cup or Bust" mentality that was laid out in September and October of 2015. It doesn't mean the Bolts season is ending tonight, it doesn't dismiss the truest fact of the NHL Playoffs: Anything can happen and everyone is a contender. What the season series status of Tampa Bay v-s Montreal signifies is that the process of becoming was a vastly different story than what played out last season. That was in store for the Lightning from the beginning, even if a fan element and media expected nothing less than an 82-0-0 season.

If they get swept in the season series or run up the score against Montreal becomes irrelevant at the final horn of this game. The regular season concludes and passes into history, but the true legacy for 2015-16 can be forged in the NHL playoffs.

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