MONTREAL — Veteran center Brian Boyle said games like tonight's showdown against the Canadiens are "the reason you play."
The Lightning trails Montreal by just two points for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference leads, and gets two cracks at the Canadiens in the next seven days, starting tonight at the always buzzing Bell Centre.
"There's a lot at stake," Boyle said. "Everyone's jockeying for position."
Said captain Steven Stamkos: "This is a big test. We realize how tight it is in our division, and obviously playing head-to-head is a big swing."
Though February was considered a measuring-stick month for Tampa Bay to see where it stacked up against the top Western Conference teams, March includes an equally difficult slate of division games: three total with Montreal, two with Boston and two with Detroit.
"It's the Eastern Conference version of our February," coach Jon Cooper said.
First comes the Canadiens, buoyed by goaltender Carey Price, who is in consideration for both the Vezina Trophy (top goalie) and Hart Trophy (MVP) because of his stellar season (37-13-3, 1.89 goals-against average).
"It's always fun to play against one of the best goalies in the league and match up against them," said Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season.
Stamkos said the Canadiens are somewhat similar to Tampa Bay, with dynamic players on defense and a deep forward group that beats you with their speed and skill. "That's why it's always a good game against them," Stamkos said.
The Lightning got the better of Montreal in both previous meetings this season, 7-1 Oct. 13 in Tampa and 4-2 Jan. 6 in Montreal. But Cooper pointed out how much both teams have changed since then, with the Canadiens adding defenseman Jeff Petry and forwards Brian Flynn and Torrey Mitchell at the trade deadline.
"They're probably going to want to come out even harder," Boyle said. "They're going to want to try and redeem some of those points we got earlier in the year."
Tampa Bay has won three straight, sweeping a home stand last week against the struggling Sabres, Maple Leafs and Stars. But Stamkos said his team needs to get better on the road, where it is 15-14-5. That Tampa Bay performed so well in February, including road wins in San Jose, Anaheim and Arizona, provides hope. But this two-game trip will be tough, especially against the red-hot Bruins on Thursday. Tampa Bay hasn't won a regular-season game in Boston since March 25, 2010.
"When you find ways to win, that builds confidence, especially on home ice," Stamkos said. "No matter the situation in the game, we always feel like we can come back and win. We need to find a way to have that mentality on the road as well. That's when you really start believing in yourself as a team. You can see that's starting to come."
ICE CHIPS: Center Vladislav Namestnikov made the trip to Montreal and could play for the third straight game with wing J.T. Brown (upper-body injury) working his way back. Cooper said he would know more today about whether Brown is ready.
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.