The next three weeks before the nine-day break for the bye week and NHL All-Star Game will be a telling stretch for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning play 13 games over 21 days, the next five contests coming against Atlantic Division opponents, including tonight's matchup against the Montreal Canadiens at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop). The Bolts will play four separate back-to-back sets, three of them coming exclusively on the road.
Tampa Bay owns games in hand on everybody in the Atlantic, including two on the Canadiens. The Lightning will narrow that games-played gap in the next three weeks.
They're hoping the gap between themselves and the teams in a playoff position in the division disappears too.
Video: Preview | Lightning vs. Canadiens
"We're playing catchup right now," said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who leads all NHL blueliners for power-play scoring and ranks fourth for scoring overall. "We know we have a few games in hand on some teams, but you've got to win those games as well. That's kind of the mentality. We need to catch these teams. Montreal is right there in front of us and we play them two times in the next four games. Two very important games. Start with the one tonight and go from there."
Montreal sits in third place in the Atlantic but is just two points ahead of the Lightning, who are currently sixth. Tampa Bay can catch the Canadiens with a victory tonight and likely overtake the Habs with another victory in five days when the two teams rematch in Montreal.
"No matter who it is, these are important games," Bolts captain Steven Stamkos said. "We play 13 games in the next 21 days. This is where, we're two, three, four games in hand on some teams we're chasing, this is where we're going to make up those games and we need to win them. Obviously, we play Montreal tonight. We play them again shortly. These are big games for both teams. It's going to be a tight race before the next break for All Star."
The Lightning have won nine in a row over Atlantic Division opponents, that run beginning October 15 with a 3-1 victory in Montreal when the Bolts rallied from a 1-0 deficit to score three unanswered goals.
The Bolts play a home back-to-back set this weekend. After that, they have just three home games all of January, making tonight's contest against Montreal as well as Sunday's versus Detroit critically important.
Video: Pregame | Jon Cooper
"Each game is so important for us at this time of the year right now with where we are in the standings. We realize that," Stamkos said. "You want to take care of the home ice for sure. It's been a little bit of a grind this year obviously with the Sweden trip mixed in there, now you've got to catch up with those games eventually, it's coming right now in this three-week stretch…It's difficult, so you want to win on home ice. It allows you to go out there and just kind of simplify on the road and just try to get points. That's what it really is at this time of year is get as many points as you can until that segment of the next break, so that's our mindset."
The Lightning will have nearly their full complement of players for this vital stretch of the season. During Saturday's morning skate, Braydon Coburn (lower-body injury) and Tyler Johnson (lower-body injury) were both on the ice and full participants. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Coburn is "really close" to being available and said Johnson is good to go. Carter Verhaeghe was also at morning skate after leaving practice early the previous day.
"It's that time of year where not only us but every team is dealing with some sort of injuries," Stamkos said. "You just want to try to utilize that little break that we had to get guys healthy. Obviously, Cobie's been more of a long-term thing, but it looks like he's gearing to go. When we have a healthy lineup, we rely on our depth. Guys can plug in and play and hold their own. It's nice to see those guys back out. It brings the morale up a little bit, and they're itching to get back."