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Canadiens ready for tough test

Montreal hosting Lightning in search of sixth straight win

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning have positioned themselves at this early stage of the season to fight for the Atlantic Division title, as has often been the case over the past few years.

But they arrive at Bell Centre for their first matchup of the season Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN360, RDS, SUN, NHL.TV) coming off completely opposite offseasons.

In simple terms, the Canadiens did everything they could to change; the Lightning did everything possible to avoid change.

That makes sense when you consider the Canadiens missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and the Lightning made their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference Final, but the contrast between them and how they entered this season is striking.

The Canadiens overhauled their roster, most notably trading defenseman P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Shea Weber, in order to change the chemistry in their locker room and give them the strength to withstand the type of adversity that sank them a season ago.

Video: MTL@NYI: Habs take lead on Weber's PPG late in 3rd

So far so good, with Montreal being winners of five straight games and the last team in the NHL without a regulation loss (6-0-1), a start similar to the franchise record the Canadiens set last season by winning their first nine games.

And having gone through that experience is exactly why Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty is not overly excited with how this season began.

"We know," Pacioretty said. "We know what happened last year. We know what we've accomplished right now is nothing. In fact, it can work against us, as we saw last year. So we have to make sure we improve every day."

In addition to Weber, the Canadiens added forwards Andrew Shaw and Alexander Radulov and rookie forward Artturi Lehkonen is playing a top-six role on Montreal's second line. Goaltender Carey Price is healthy again after missing all but 12 games last season, and combined with the chemistry tweaks made in the offseason, the Canadiens hope that can help them prove last season was an anomaly. A win against the Lightning (5-1-0) on Thursday will help accomplish that.

"The guys buying into the team concept, it's important," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "The atmosphere of this hockey team, we've seen it since training camp, we're talking about it.

"The team chemistry is really important, and I've seen it from Day One."

No one knows that better than the Lightning, whose players made every effort to make sure their chemistry did not change in the offseason.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos signed an eight-year, $68 million contract to stay in Tampa Bay on June 29, a contract many observers felt would have been eclipsed by what he could have made on the unrestricted free agent market.

That was followed two days later by No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman signing an eight-year, $63 million contract extension, again potentially leaving money on the table when he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next July.

Video: MTL@NYI: Danault jams a rebound home past Greiss

Finally, forward Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent, signed a three-year, $14.3 million contract on Oct. 11, well below market value for a player who scored 59 goals over the two previous seasons.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has other expiring contracts on the horizon that will make it difficult to keep this group together, but at least he knows his players value the chemistry they have and the unique opportunity they have to win together.

"The core of this team is still very young, and that's something that I think is a little rare in our League, to have success but be able to sustain that success," Stamkos said. "We saw what Chicago did, and they're maybe towards the end of that where they're having to turn over some players now. But that's kind of the way we want to see ourselves grow and win a championship together. … Now that we've all [signed contracts], it's back to work and trying to accomplish something that we've been close to but haven't yet done."

The Canadiens and Lightning are each facing a unique type of pressure this season, and that last point by Stamkos is perhaps one many people don't realize about an elite team. Yes, the Lightning is young and talented and primed to win, but nothing is given in the NHL and they have to go out and realize that potential.

When everyone expects you to do so, it can be difficult to manage.

"If you have the same team, teams around the League are getting better and getting new players into their lineup, so we've got to get better within the group. That's on us," Hedman said. "You can't get comfortable. We've pretty much had the same team now for three straight years, that's pretty rare in this sport and in sports in general to pretty much have the same lineup for that amount of years. We're very fortunate to have that, to know that management believes in us. Now it's up to us to deliver on the ice."

The pressure on the Canadiens is to establish the same type of chemistry that led the Lightning's top players to go to great lengths to stay there, and thereby justify all the changes made by general manager Marc Bergevin in the offseason.

If they manage to do that, perhaps one day the Canadiens can graduate to the type of pressure the Lightning feel today.

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