TAMPA — A potential playoff preview unfolds Tuesday when Montreal rolls into town.
The only real question is who will hold home ice advantage.
Montreal holds a two-point lead on Tampa Bay, though the Lightning have one game in hand. That means the team that wins Tuesday will hold the inside track on opening at home for the best-of-seven series.
“That’s going to be huge, we are fighting with them for home ice,’’ Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere just like the rest of these games, and it might get a little more hype because it is a possible playoff matchup. But we are not worried about the playoffs right now. We are worried about playing hockey and getting as many points as we can to finish as high as we can.’’
With games remaining on the regular season schedule and a playoff spot yet to be officially clinched, the Lightning are not looking at Tuesday’s game as a potential warm-up. There are no messages to be sent or tricks to be played — it is a regular-season game with points on the line.
“Every game from here on out is extremely important,’’ goaltender Ben Bishop said. “Obviously, we are fighting with (Montreal), but every game has to be played the same. You can’t put more pressure on that game just because we are fighting with them. … It will be a good test for both teams. I know they will be jacked up and I’m assuming that we will be, too.’’
And judging by the first three meetings this season – all of which were decided in overtime or a shootout — a closely contested playoff-type game is likely.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who went through plenty of these late-season matchups against potential opening-round playoff opponents, doesn’t expect anything different to take place on Tuesday. The days of sending messages by being overly physical against a team are in the past. Instead, the game will be a chance to see the opponent is currently playing.
“Right now, we want to clinch a playoff spot, we haven’t done that yet,’’ Yzerman said. “And this is an important game. ... If we can beat (Montreal) we are tied in points with a game in hand. So, we are fighting for a playoff spot and fighting for home ice, potentially. And I never really felt those end-of-the-season games had any impact on the other.’’
The Lightning are downplaying the importance of what bearing this one game might have when the teams likely meet in the playoffs, instead focusing on what it means for the regular season.
“It’s hard not to put emphasis on the game because we are two points behind them,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I don’t know how things are going to play out in the end here, but beating them would sure be a nice rallying point for our team and points in the standings. What do they call them, a four-point game? That’s what that one is.’’