Barring some sort of stunning collapse — or ascension, depending on your perspective — the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning are going to meet in the opening round of this year’s playoffs.
Which makes tonight’s game in Tampa so interesting.
The two sides will meet for the fourth and final time of the season at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, with the Bolts holding a 2-0-1 edge through the first three games.
Montreal heads into tonight’s action sitting second in the Atlantic Division with 93 points through 76 games played. Tampa is two points back, with 91, but has a game in hand and knows a win tonight would have huge implications for home ice advantage in the opening round.
“We’re fighting with them for home ice,” Steve Stamkos said, per NHL.com. “It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere. … We’re not worried about the playoffs now, we’re just worried about playing hockey and getting as many points to finish as high as we can.”
Lightning-Canadiens is hardly a storied postseason rivalry, but the two do have some history. The Bolts dispatched of the Habs in four straight games in the 2003-04 Eastern Conference semifinals, a series that current Habs Andrei Markov and Francis Bouillon participated in.
Tampa Bay would go on to win its first and only Stanley Cup that spring.
Talk of historical playoff matchups and potential home ice is a tad premature, though. Neither team has clinched a spot yet — though both could get in with a win tonight — and, according to Lightning coach Jon Cooper, this evening’s game is all about the points.
“It’s hard not to put emphasis on the game because we’re, what, two points behind them?,” Cooper said, per the Lightning website. “I don’t know how things are going to play out in the end here, but beating them would sure be a nice rallying point for out team.
“A four-point game? That’s what that one is.”