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Atlantic division rivals square off in early matchup

The Lightning and Canadiens only have one loss between the two teams early this season

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens are two of the hottest teams in the NHL to start the 2016-17 season.

The Lightning have won five of six games to start the year and are 2-0-0 on their current six-game road trip.

The Canadiens, meanwhile, have yet to lose in regulation this season and lead the league for points (13) and win percentage (.929).

The Bolts visit the Habs tonight at the Bell Centre for the first of four meetings this season that will go a long way in determining the 2016-17 Atlantic Division champion.

"Their best player's healthy again," said Bolts center Brian Boyle, referring to Montreal goaltender Carey Price, who missed much of last season due to injury and didn't face the Lightning at all in 2015-16. "They've obviously been one of the hottest teams in the league. They've got a lot of firepower and they don't give up much, so we understand that we've got to earn our chances."

Price is 3-0-0 in his three starts this season with a 1.68 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. He will almost assuredly start Thursday's night game against the Lightning after Al Montoya started for the Habs Wednesday night at the New York Islanders.

Video: Boyle on keys to Thursday's game vs. MTL"And in here, it's tough to play here," Boyle said, referring to the double whammy of facing Price and playing in the Bell Centre. "He's a tough goalie. We obviously try to play to our strengths, try to create some zone time, make sure we're taking care of the puck. We've done some good things, and when we do those things I think we're more successful. When you do them for 60 minutes, that's always the battle, especially early in the year when you're trying to stay in the system."

The Lightning are scoring 3.83 goals per game, third best in the NHL. Montreal is one place behind the Bolts averaging 3.71 goals every outing.

The Canadiens have been tougher defensively, however, allowing a league least 1.57 goals per game.

The Lightning have been middle of the road so far in that department, giving up 2.83 goals a game and ranking 14th in the league.

"We've had some good matchups the last few years, and we're very excited and obviously one of the teams we're going to battle with for a playoff spot and the top spot in this division," Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We need to make sure we're ready from the start."

The Lightning were swept by Montreal in 2015-16, going 0-3-1, but were 8-0-1 combined in the two seasons prior.

Video: Cooper on Thursday's game at MontrealPLAYING ON CONSECUTIVE NIGHTS: Montreal defeated the New York Islanders 3-2 on the road Wednesday night and will be facing its first back-to-back scenario of the season when they host the Lightning tonight.

Getting the Canadiens on the back end of consecutive games, especially after traveling back to Montreal Wednesday night, is a situation, Hedman said, the Lightning clearly have to take advantage of.

"We know what it's all about," he said. "Everyone that's been in the league for a long time knows how to prepare for a back-to-back, so we expect their best tonight. But at the same time, later in periods, later in the game, it's going to be a little bit tougher, so we've just got to make sure we play structured, play to our strengths and got to make sure we have a good first period to start off and make sure that we eliminate as many scoring chances as we can and take over from there."

Positive opening periods in both Ottawa and Toronto have helped the Lightning jump out to a 2-0-0 start on the current six-game road trip.

A similar effort will be required to keep the winning streak intact in Montreal.

"We came out really, really strong (in Ottawa and Toronto), got the lead and then kept the lead, so something we're hoping to do tonight," Cooper said.

The Lightning will face their first back-to-back situation later this week when they play the New Jersey Devils on Saturday followed by a game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers on Sunday.

Video: Stamkos on match up vs. MontrealODDS AND ENDS: Ben Bishop was the first Lightning goaltender off the ice from morning skate and will make his second-consecutive start and 200th appearance in a Bolts jersey tonight…The Bolts went with the same lines and defensive pairings as they used in Ottawa and Toronto during Thursday's morning skate at the Bell Centre…Tampa Bay scored multiple power-play goals in consecutive games at Ottawa (2) and at Toronto (2) for the first time since March 19-20, 2014…The Bolts rank tied for second in the NHL for power-play goals (7) and third for power-play success rate (30.4%)…The Lightning rank tied for third in the league for takeaways (56)…Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos enters Thursday tied for third in the league for goals (5) and tied for fourth for scoring (9 points). 

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