BROSSARD, Que. — The Montreal Canadiens have a lot to prove.
This is a team that was feeling sorry for itself, left for dead by the majority of its fans after losing 21 of 26 games coming into last weekend matinees against the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes. A convincing 5-1 win over the former and a gutsy 2-1 shootout win over the latter brought the Canadiens to within three points of the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, giving them something to feel good about, but did little to challenge the perception that they are incapable of salvaging their season.
But a win of any kind over the Tampa Bay Lightning this Tuesday would help the Canadiens build some much needed confidence, even if it wouldn’t be enough to completely turn some heads in the fan base.
Consider that Tampa has won eight of its last 10 games. And don’t make the mistake of ignoring the recent history between these teams when evaluating how big an opportunity this is for Montreal.
It was the Lightning—on the heels of being embarrassed in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Canadiens in Round 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs — that brought this rivalry to new heights last season.
“Although the guys weren’t saying it, there was definitely a bit of animosity going in,” said Canadiens defenceman Mark Barberio — a member of the 2014-15 Lightning who dismantled Montreal in all five regular-season games before dispatching them from Round 2 of the playoffs.
Barberio expanded on the thought after Monday’s optional practice.
“We wanted to prove to them that we could play with them,” he said. “We weren’t going in saying, ‘we’re obviously winning this game,’ but we were definitely well-prepared for every time we were playing the Canadiens last year.”
Barberio knows his current team had that same type of hunger on Dec. 28, when it collected a 4-3 shootout win over the Lightning in their first meeting this season. He’s convinced the Canadiens will have it again come Tuesday night.
But beating the Lightning at their best won’t just come down to a battle of wills.
“One thing is certain, we need to play really tight defensively and eliminate time and space from our opponent,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien Monday.
The seeds for that game plan were planted in allowing only a goal against in each of the games against Edmonton and Carolina.
Another key factor for Montreal?
“We also need big saves at key moments of the game — which is something [Canadiens goaltender Ben] Scrivens gave us over the weekend,” added Therrien.
The 23 saves Scrivens managed in the blowout win over Edmonton were one thing; the 34 he made against Carolina before shutting the door on all five shootout attempts were another. Though the Hurricanes are outside the playoff picture at the moment, only the Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers have collected more points than their 37 since Dec. 3.
Beating them was an important challenge for Scrivens and the Canadiens to overcome before facing the juggernaut that is the Lightning.
“We’re aware that we’re playing a team that’s probably the strongest one in the East; the club that went to the Stanley Cup Finals; the club that everyone can see getting back to the finals,” said Therrien in French. “We’re aware of the challenge that awaits us [Tuesday].
“They’re explosive on offence, they play really well defensively as well, and [Lightning goaltender Ben] Bishop guards the net with a level of consistency — especially against us.”
Talk about a mountain to climb.
But a win on Tuesday would be another massive step in the right direction for Montreal. They’d be pushing the adversity of the last two months further behind them and they’d be proving to themselves that they can compete with every other team that’s in the hunt for a playoff position in their conference.
Convincing their fans will be a 27-game undertaking for the Canadiens thereafter.