Lightning, Canadiens meet with different fates from last year
TAMPA -- Much has changed since last season, when the Montreal Canadiens finished atop the Atlantic Division and the Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs by a single point.
As Montreal comes to face the Lightning, the roles are nearly reversed, with Tampa Bay (26-7-2) owning the best record in hockey and the Canadiens (16-16-4) on the outside of the playoff picture nearing the midpoint of the season.
Part of Tampa Bay's spark was a June trade with Montreal, shipping talented forward Jonathan Drouin north in exchange for then-18-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. The Lightning couldn't keep all of their young stars, and Drouin signed a six-year, $33 million deal with Montreal.
Sergachev, still just 19, has been so phenomenal he's outscored Drouin, 22, all by himself. Sergachev has eight goals and 15 assists to go with a promising plus-12 on the ice, while Drouin has struggled, with just five goals and 13 assists and a minus-14.
Tampa Bay has the league's top scoring offense, and Sergachev has upgraded a defense that is now third in goals allowed. Montreal, however, is 25th in scoring and 22nd in goals allowed, struggling to tread water at .500.
"We could not sit here and predict Sergachev was going to be ... we hoped he was going to be the player he is," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Joe (Drouin) was a pretty big part of our team last year ... it was a business deal. The bottom line is Joe was the one that was going to bring the most value."
The Lightning has two of the league's top scorers -- Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL in goals (24) and points (51), while Steven Stamkos is third in assists (32) and fourth in points (45). The best story might be goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who leads the league with 23 wins and ranks second with a 2.13 goals-against average.
Tonight's game pits the league's No. 1 power play from Tampa Bay against the NHL's No. 28 penalty kill, and Montreal is in the tail end of a back-to-back, having played Wednesday night at Carolina.
Left winger Phillip Danault leads the Canadiens with 21 points on seven goals and 14 assists, but Montreal has its hands full against a Lightning team that went 2-1-1 against them last season.
Tampa Bay has been scorching hot, 9-1-0 in their last 10 games, the lone loss coming on a goal with 2.3 seconds left in regulation at Las Vegas. The Lightning have their own back-to-back with a home game Friday against Philadelphia, and they've had just one sweep in their five previous back-to-back opportunities this season.
Montreal comes in having dropped two straight, including a 3-1 loss at Carolina that was tied in the third period. The Canadiens must find an offensive spark if they're to get themselves back into playoff contention in the second half of the season.
"I've had tons of opportunities to score," said left winger Max Pacioretty, held without a goal in 10 games in December. "Maybe not tons, but I've had some Grade As. With confidence, those go the other way. No one is going to help me out of this other than myself. I have to find the way to dig deep, get through this and help the team win."
Updated December 28, 2017