MONTREAL — The Tampa Bay Lightning’s playoff hopes still have a pulse.
After disposing of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night, the Lightning will be looking to stave off elimination yet again when they visit the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night at Bell Centre.
In beating Toronto in regulation, the Lightning (40-30-10) moved to within three points of the second and final wild card spot — by Toronto — and remain tied with the New York Islanders in the race for the lone remaining playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay, which hosts the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday to close out the regular season, needs to win its final two games in regulation or overtime and hope the Maple Leafs lose in regulation and the Islanders lose at least once.
“You’re just keeping it kind of in your hands,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the win over Toronto. “You can’t sit here and look at (what other teams) are doing, you just look at what you’re doing. If you start worrying about other stuff, it’ll just affect your mindset. It’s kind of what got us to this point so far.”
Tyler Johnson, who returned on Sunday after nearly a month out with a lower-body injury, missed Thursday’s game after getting banged up against the Bruins earlier in the week and is uncertain for the game against Montreal.
The Lightning also will be without captain Steven Stamkos, who confirmed Thursday morning that he won’t be returning before the end of the regular season.
The likes of Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and rookie Brayden Point have helped fill the holes the injury bug has left on Tampa Bay, but the team has also been able to count on its call-ups from the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.
“You just can’t rely on Point and Palat and Kucherov to do everything for you,” Cooper said. “We’re not anywhere without those guys, but you need secondary help, and these (AHL) guys are there for us. It’s been a lot of fun to coach this team.”
Having clinched the Atlantic Division title at the start of the week, the Canadiens (46-25-9) are in full-on playoff preparation mode. The team’s final countdown of the regular season kicked off with a loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, snapping Montreal’s five-game winning streak.
“You’re disappointed any time you lose,” Habs winger Brendan Gallagher said. “We did some good things; but, at the same time, (Carey) Price had to make too many good saves. (There were) too many quality chances on the other side.
“We were getting a lot of shots, but there weren’t many secondary shots around the net. Going forward, tightening it up a little bit and getting on the net and we’ll have better success.”
After a dry spell hit the Canadiens’ top line for part of last month, the unit is finding its game again as the schedule winds down. Alexander Radulov extended his point streak to five games (three goals, three assists) with a helper on Wednesday, while the streaks of Max Pacioretty (eight points in five games) and Phillip Danault (five points in four) ended against Buffalo.
“Our line had a lot of really, really good looks, got a little bit too cute, but felt really good about the chemistry and finding each other and forechecking,” Pacioretty said. “It’s a nice time of year to have a good feeling like that and have that chemistry, so hopefully we can keep continuing with that.”
While the offense has been rolling, Montreal’s defense corps has taken a beating lately. Jordie Benn has been sidelined the past four games with an undisclosed injury and Shea Weber returned to Montreal, missing the last two games of the trip. Alexei Emelin joined the walking wounded on Wednesday, suffering a lower-body injury.
The Canadiens called up defenseman Brett Lernout from the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps as an emergency recall, which suggests that none of the injured are likely to return to face the Lightning.