Fighting for home ice: Habs, Bolts meet tonight in likely playoff preview

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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.”

Auston Matthews keeps goal streak alive, gives Leafs 1-0 lead in third

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These are the moments Toronto Maple Leafs fans were dreaming about when they drafted Auston Matthews. At least those bold enough to picture such great things, so soon in his career.

Speaking of so soon … that’s not how you’d describe a 1-0 goal happening in the third period of a game in this Leafs – Washington Capitals series, but it took that long to break the ice in Game 6.

It took a very lucky bounce for the puck to find its way to Matthews … but the finish was pure skill. With that, the remarkable rookie now has a goal in four straight games (with an assist thrown in for good measure).

The lead wouldn’t last long, however, as Marcus Johansson scored to tie it 1-1.

Things could get awfully nervous for Toronto as they try to force a decisive Game 7 in Washington, but that was a huge goal by Matthews either way.

Clarke MacArthur, Craig Anderson made Sens win that much more emotional

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It could have been over for Clarke MacArthur plenty of times during his turbulent NHL career. Scratch that, his turbulent hockey career.

His team walked away from his salary arbitration award. MacArthur’s seen plenty of people give up on him. And then, when he finally found a home with the Ottawa Senators, concussion issues threatened to end his playing days.

Yet, there he was on Sunday … drawing a penalty in overtime and then scoring on the ensuing power play to help the Senators advance beyond the Boston Bruins.

He didn’t deny that he imagined very different possibilities during his darker moments.

And, as uplifting as his story was – seriously, just watch this interview and try not to root for the guy – it wasn’t the only emotionally charged moment from Game 6.

Nicholle Anderson was on hand to cheer on Craig Anderson in this one, and the two were able to embrace after the contest:

As violent and intense as the playoffs can often be, MacArthur and Anderson reminded us of the gentler human side of it all.

Erik Karlsson played through hairline fractures in foot to help Sens advance

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Remember when many were keeping an eye on Erik Karlsson after he was seemingly cramping up after logging more than 40 minutes in an OT contest against the Boston Bruins?

It’s possible he was also dealing with that sort of ailment, but he earned some “hockey tough” kudos on Sunday after word surfaced that the Ottawa Senators defenseman was dealing with hairline fractures in his left heel through the series.

Sportsnet’s Jason York refers to the issue as “two small fractures” while ESPN’s Joe McDonald went into specifics, noting that Karlsson explains that the injury happened on March 28 (and was why he missed some games late in the season).

There’s some optimism as the Senators ready for the New York Rangers, at least according to Karlsson.

Hmm.

Either way, that’s impressive stuff from the Senators defenseman, and the sort of information that usually only surfaces after a team has been eliminated. We’ll see if he’s hindered by such issues as the playoffs go along.

Gaudreau, Granlund and Tarasenko: 2017 Lady Byng finalists

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The NHL officially announced the nominees for the 2017 Lady Byng on Sunday, and they’re a star-studded bunch: Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Granlund and Vladimir Tarasenko.

The PHWA determines “the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

(Did Tarasenko help eliminate Granlund’s team in a gentlemanly fashion?)

For more on the three finalists, click here.