TAMPA - Claude Julien's troops may be satisfied with their trip out to Western Canada, but they know that the stakes are higher in their upcoming back-to-back set in the State of Florida.
The Habs resume action for the first time since December 23, and will be looking to keep the good times rolling after picking up six of a possible eight points out West.
However, the Canadiens know they need to focus on the next challenge that awaits, as they get set to face two divisional rivals starting with the Lightning on Saturday night.
The players know how valuable each and every point can be against fellow Atlantic Division opponents.
"This whole road trip is a big one for us. Two [games] in the division, and everyone sees how tight the standings are," mentioned Jeff Petry, who has four goals and 20 points in 37 games this season. "They're big games in the standings, but they're big games for us. We have to really focus in and know what this road trip means."
Video: Jeff Petry on the first game back since the break
The Habs' veteran bench boss agrees, and says he hopes his team accomplishes its mission of leaving Tampa with two precious points in hand.
"We're aware that this trip is very important. We managed to get six of eight points in the West, but that was the other conference. This time, we're playing teams in our division," Julien explained during his pregame media availability. "The two games in Florida will be very important and Carolina is also in our conference. We really have to take it one game at a time."
Video: Claude Julien's pregame press conference in Tampa
In order to achieve the desired result, the Canadiens will have to stay disciplined. The Lightning have the NHL's top power play at home at 38%. Tampa has scored 27 goals on 71 chances with the man advantage at Amalie Arena.
Another important factor will be how the Habs come out to start the game. Montreal hopes to have a better start than it's managed in its past few games, even if it's the club's first game in five days.
"I don't think we've forgotten how to skate or play the game. I think it's just a matter of definitely keeping it simple early on and building our game back up. We need to be mentally sharp. The thing that hurt us the most on the last road trip was our starts," outlined Petry. "So I think that's important coming off a break is to have a strong start, and a stronger start than they are. Hopefully, that carries momentum."
A much-awaited return
For his part, youngster Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be making his return against the Lightning. Kotkaniemi had been on the shelf since December 5 with a concussion.
The 19-year-old Finn will center the third line between Jordan Weal and Nick Cousins.
Julien would like Kotkaniemi to keep things simple.
"He hasn't played in awhile, so we're going to have to keep an eye on his shifts and the way he manages the game. We've been working with him for at least a week. We're expecting him to be ready and to help," shared the coach. "It's too bad, because I thought he was starting to play well before this last injury. We hope he plays the same way."
Meanwhile, Carey Price will get the start against Tampa. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. at Amalie Arena.