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Tuesday's Lightning-Canadiens game a possible playoff preview

Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop stops a shot by the Canadiens’ David Desharnais in the teams’ most recent meeting, Feb. 1 in Montreal.

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Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop stops a shot by the Canadiens’ David Desharnais in the teams’ most recent meeting, Feb. 1 in Montreal.

TAMPA — The Lightning, as do most NHL teams, likes to say every game is as important as the next.

Sometimes, though, you just have to state the obvious as captain Steven Stamkos did about tonight's game with the Canadiens at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

"It's going to be huge," he said. "It's going to be like a playoff atmosphere."

That's because the game could be a first-round playoff preview, with a fight for home-ice advantage as the overlay.

A Lightning victory, a regulation loss by the Capitals and a loss of any kind by the Devils tonight also puts Tampa Bay in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and only the second time since 2007.

So with a playoff spot all but inevitable, the real drama is the race with the Canadiens.

The way the postseason is structured, the second- and third-place teams in each division meet in the first round. The second-place team gets home ice.

Tampa Bay, with 91 points, is third in the Atlantic Division, two points behind Montreal. A Lightning win ties things and, with a game in hand, gives it the inside track.

A victory also gives Tampa Bay a series-winning seven points, which could be important in a tie-breaker situation.

"I don't know how things are going to play out at the end," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "but beating them would sure be a nice rallying point for the team."

The Canadiens, on an 8-1-0 streak, and with five straight wins overall and on the road, have the same sensibility.

"Come playoffs it doesn't matter what happened in the past, but we want to make a statement against a team we could meet in the playoffs," left wing Max Pacioretty told Montreal reporters. "It's important being in that building and doing well."

If form holds, the game will be close as the past six between the teams (and nine of the past 11) were decided by one goal.

Each of this season's three games have gone to overtime. Tampa Bay is 2-0-1 with a shootout win, an overtime win and a shootout loss.

With so little margin for error, the Lightning has to eliminate the unforced mistakes and defensive-zone coverage gaffes with which it got away during an 11-game points streak (7-0-4) that included six overtime or shootout games and ended with Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Red Wings.

It also must match the intensity of playoff-hungry opponents, something Cooper said Tampa Bay did not do against Detroit.

"Can I sit here and say we're playing our best hockey of the year? No," Cooper said. "We definitely are not."

But Cooper also said the mistakes are "fixable," and with a six-game homestand before the April 13 finale at Washington, there is time to put things right.

"One thing is we're going to get to squeeze in a little practice time, which we haven't been able to do at all," he said.

Perhaps Sunday's loss to the Wings served a purpose, as well.

"It puts things back into perspective a little bit," Stamkos said. "Okay, we lost, let's reset and start another streak. Let's focus here. We have a huge game coming up."

"I know they're going to be jacked up," Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said of the Canadiens. "I'm assuming we will be, too."

Tickets: Seats in all price ranges remain for tonight's game.

Honored guest: Tampa native Declan Farmer, 16, who won gold in Sochi, Russia, with the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team, will drop tonight's ceremonial first puck and sign autographs during the first intermission.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

Tuesday's Lightning-Canadiens game a possible playoff preview 03/31/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2014 10:20pm]
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