TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning open a five-game homestand just as they’re starting to get key players back from injury, while the Montreal Canadiens come to town short-handed with their own injury issues.
Both teams haven’t played since Friday and go straight from the holiday break to a back-to-back with games on Thursday night as well.
Tampa Bay (17-15-3) had six injured players — forwards Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Cedric Paquette, plus defensemen Victor Hedman and Braydon Coburn — all practicing Wednesday, a promising sign for many of them being available for Thursday’s game after a long month of injury issues.
“It’s great to see the amount of players out there,” coach Jon Cooper said after practice Wednesday. “That’s what we have not been able to see over the past month.”
Cooper joked that the holiday break gave his players “lots of food and probably some eggnog thrown in there,” and they’ll need to be in good shape playing three home games in four days, with Toronto in town on Thursday and Carolina on Saturday.
The Lightning are coming off a 4-0 loss at Washington before the break, but had two solid home wins before that, rallying to beat Detroit and St. Louis at Amalie Arena.
Montreal (21-9-4) is at the opposite end of the injury spectrum, with five injured players — forwards David Desharnais, Alex Galchenyuk and Andrew Shaw and defensemen Greg Pateryn and Andrei Markov — not traveling with the team for their road trip. Desharnais and Galchenyuk skated in Montreal on Wednesday, but coach Michel Therrien said Markov won’t play until the new year.
“We just played two solid hockey teams,” Therrien said of losses before the break, dropping the Canadiens to 2-3-1 in their last six. “The fact that we’re missing some guys, they’re battle-hard. We could have had better results, but we need to create more offensively.”
Montreal opened the season 13-1-1 but is just 8-8-3 since, though the chance to play the Lightning could help change that. The Canadiens went 4-0 against Tampa Bay last season — this after the Lightning won all four regular-season games in 2014-15 and eliminated Montreal in six games in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Montreal’s top scorer is left wing Max Paciorety with 14 goals and 13 assists, while the Lightning’s top scorer remains Kucherov with 13 goals and 17 assists despite missing time with injury of late. Tampa Bay has the NHL’s No. 3 scoring defenseman in Hedman, who has six goals and 23 assists.
As it stands, Tampa Bay sits in fourth place in the Atlantic Division, so there’s an urgency to getting more points in the standings as it gets healthier on the ice. That starts with three home games in four nights this week and a chance to make up ground.