It would be misleading to suggest tomorrow’s Montreal Canadiens game against the Lightning (7:30 Eastern) is the Habs’ most important of the season. In fact, the Canadiens have at least three critically important games remaining this 2014-15 regular season, all against Tampa.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
While the 42-18-6 Canadiens hold a two-point advantage and one game in hand over the Lightning as the current Atlantic Division leaders, there’s a very legitimate argument to be made that Tampa is the superior team (41-20-6).
For starters, the Lightning have more regulation and overtime wins (39 vs. 36) and a league-leading +45 goal differential (+31 for Montreal). They also hold a distinct advantage in most every offensive statistical category (Montreal conversely has an advantage in most every defensive one, with notable exception to shots against).
As a result, the Bolts routinely find themselves above Montreal in different power rankings—sometimes even in top spot, despite the edge Montreal has in points and the likelihood that the Habs will hold on to win the Atlantic thanks to an easier schedule, among other factors.
One cannot deny though that those three games against Tampa remaining factor into the schedule in a very big way. And, with Tampa having won their two games against the Canadiens so far this season (7-1 on October 13 and 4-2 on January 6), it is all far from guaranteed how this race to the wire will turn out.
That is perhaps the biggest and best reasoning behind the argument that Tampa is the better team. The Lightning have outplayed the Habs as a whole (and many other teams) this season, outshooting them by a total of 77-39 (nearly 2:1), with Vezina and Hart Memorial Trophy candidate Carey Price suffering both losses.
It’s sometimes forgotten that in the playoffs last spring Price only came on in the second round against the Boston Bruins. Against Tampa, despite the four-game sweep, he was very ordinary, allowing 10 goals in five games and earning a .904 save percentage. Montreal’s entire game practically hinges on Price’s success and if the Lightning can get to him, they can most definitely get past them.
To the Victors
It of course isn’t just a two-team race for first place in the Atlantic and Eastern Conference. The right to face either the eighth-place Boston Bruins (whom the Habs swept this season) or potentially Ottawa Senators or Florida Panthers in the first round is up for grabs, meaning an easier path to the second round and beyond.
The Detroit Red Wings have three games in hand on Tampa and are just five points back. The New York Rangers (40-17-7) have two games in hand on Montreal and are just three points back and are arguably more legitimate threats than the Metropolitan Division leaders, the New York Islanders (42-21-4).
However, in regard to Detroit, the Red Wings still have to win those games and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, or so the saying goes. For now, the Lightning and Habs are the top two teams and whoever comes out as the season series winner will have a definite advantage in the standings, and not just because points earned in games between the two clubs would be the third tie-breaker.
If these upcoming next three games (March 16 in Tampa, March 30 in Montreal) all go the same way, one way or the other, tie-breakers won’t matter. These are all so-called four-point games, after all. The two teams are close in the standings right now, but the the resulting point differential would certainly be too insurmountable of an obstacle to overcome.
In fact, one can actually make the argument that, should the Habs win tomorrow in regulation, just the four points would be too steep a hill to climb for Tampa. As the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman has covered in the past, from 2005-06 to 2011-12, only three of 32 teams at least four points out of the playoffs on November 1 were able to recover and reach the postseason.
Applying the same principle here, one can easily come to the conclusion that, it being past March 1 and the Lightning potentially ending up four points behind the Habs with one more game played, tomorrow night may not be Montreal’s most important game of the season, but it will be Tampa’s. That is, until the two teams face each other next week.
That four-point watermark is of course meant to apply more to bubble teams than anyone else, definitely not teams as good as the Lightning who may be on the cusp of a Presidents’ Trophy. But, with the existence of three-point games and opportunities for points between matchups to potentially widen the gap, all of Tampa will definitely be able to sleep a lot easier with a win tomorrow night.
All of Montreal too. May the (actually) better team win.