LIGHTNING (17-22-4) at CANADIENS (26-12-5)
TV: RDS, FS-F, TSN-HABS
Last 10: Tampa Bay 3-4-3; Montreal 5-5-0
Season series: This is the final meeting of three. The Montreal Canadiens won the first two on the road each by a 4-3 score, in a shootout Feb. 12 and in regulation March 9.
Big story: The Canadiens are struggling at the worst possible time, losing three in a row for the second time, the first all in regulation. Montreal is tied with the Boston Bruins atop the Northeast Division, a title that could be the difference in the second seed (and home ice) or possibly the fifth in the Eastern Conference.
"We have to do all of the small things that made us successful at the beginning of the season better," Canadiens forward Lars Eller said. "And once we get through this adversity, we're going to be a [heck] of a team. But we have to get through it and find a way to get back to what we did the first 40 games."
The Tampa Bay Lightning haven't been in the top eight in the East since Feb. 27.
Lightning: Jon Cooper coached his first game for Tampa Bay on March 29. The Lightning were still on the fringe of contention then, but a current four-game losing streak and 2-4-3 run ended those thoughts. Therefore, Cooper and the organization have started planning for 2013-14.
"As much as we're trying to win, it's now become there's the dual purpose of evaluation and looking forward to next year and what we have," Cooper said Wednesday. "It's been a great experience, a great education for me."
Forwards Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik, and defenseman Radko Gudas are among the younger players getting ice time alongside veterans Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
"The benefit of this is really getting to know the players, them getting to know you, getting a feel for each other in the room and how we act," Cooper said. "And so I think the process is going to be slow, but I'm glad it started now instead of training camp next year."
The Lightning have allowed 28 goals in their past seven games.
"We're not playing poorly, we're just probably a little bit inconsistent," Cooper said. "And I think it's one of those streaks, too, where we make one little mistake and it ends up in the back of our net."
Canadiens: After allowing two goals or fewer in regulation in 10 of 13 games, Montreal has given up 5, 7 and 6 in its past three.
"These last three games we haven't gotten out to the best starts," goaltender Carey Price said after a 6-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. "I think if we can up the pace right off the bat and get the ball rolling in that first 10 minutes we'll see a little bit more success."
The Canadiens intended to give Price a game off Wednesday after he was pulled from his previous two starts. But after backup Peter Budaj gave up three first-period goals (two on the first six shots) to the Penguins, Price was back in to start the second.
He gave up three goals on 20 shots over the last two periods. Price has 19 wins, within three of the League-leaders, but hasn't gotten one since April 1.
"I'm just out here trying to do my job. Right now we just have to focus on playing better as a group," Price said. "I'm not worried about myself as an individual right now."
The Canadiens are 6-1-1 in the second of a back-to-back this season, with Budaj playing six of the second games. Price won each end of his only two-in-a-row set, Feb. 2-3.
Who's hot: Stamkos has seven points in the past eight games, but two goals in that time to fall behind Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. St. Louis has 10 points in his past eight games, and with 53 points is tied with Stamkos for second in the League. … Canadiens rookie forward Alex Galchenyuk has five goals in his past seven games. Forward Max Pacioretty has five points in the past four games.
Injury report: Lightning forward Tom Pyatt (upper body) is questionable. Goalie Anders Lindback (lower body) is out indefinitely. … Canadiens defenseman Yannick Weber (knee) and forward Brandon Prust (shoulder) returned to play Wednesday, but forward Michael Ryder (upper body) sat out. Defensemen Alexei Emelin (knee) and Raphael Diaz (concussion), and forward Colby Armstrong (knee) are out.