NHL

Lightning-Canadiens Preview

The fact the Tampa Bay Lightning didn't win the Atlantic Division isn't necessarily surprising. Someone other than Montreal beating them out is in some ways.

The regular-season finale for both teams comes Saturday night at the Bell Centre, and for the Canadiens, it's the epilogue to a strange season that started with nearly three weeks of unbeaten hockey.

In the end, it was Florida winning the division rather than 2015 Stanley Cup finalist Tampa Bay (46-30-5) or once 9-0-0 Montreal (37-38-6).

The Lightning can live with it as they prepare for the first round on home ice next week against Detroit or Boston. The Canadiens may be numb to it since they've been out of the race for so long, recording an NHL-worst 62 points since the unbeaten start.

Three of those 28 wins since things went south have oddly come against the Lightning, including a 3-0 victory in Tampa Bay last week, and the Canadiens can complete their first non-lockout season sweep of their division foe since 1997-98.

Tampa Bay won all five regular-season meetings in 2014-15 before defeating Montreal 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Rather than eying a rematch with 2015 Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price in goal, the Canadiens spent Thursday's 4-2 win in Carolina celebrating the debut of Charlie Lindgren - a 22-year-old who played two weeks ago for St. Cloud State before signing as a free agent.

While it's not where the team expected to be, coach Michel Therrien acknowledged the storyline was special.

"This is what sport is all about," Therrien said. "You've got a kid that two weeks ago was in college and his first game in the NHL. Family was there tonight and he got the win, so this is a good moment."

Price could be considered this season's backhanded MVP the way Peyton Manning was during the Indianapolis Colts' 2-14 season without him in 2011. Price didn't play after going 10-2-0 through Nov. 25 due to an MCL sprain, and Montreal went 20-34-4 from there.

The team took another hit when P.K. Subban was carted off the ice March 11 with a neck injury, though that came with the postseason already an afterthought.

Ending the season with a far more modest winning streak might be fitting, but a loss could be more beneficial with Buffalo and Arizona still in position to pass the Canadiens and better their lottery chances.

Mike Condon will be in goal for the finale after allowing four goals in each of his last two starts. That was preceded by the shutout against the Lightning as part of a 2-0-0 season in the series for the rookie with a 1.44 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.

He could face Ben Bishop, who may finish the season with his best save percentage. He enters at .926 and his previous best was .924 in 2013-14. His 2.06 GAA is already locked in as his best, and both are top-three league marks.

The team can't match last season's franchise-best 50 wins, but another victory would break a tie with '13-14, '10-11 and '03-04 for second best. The only season among those the Lightning didn't progress to at least the conference finals was two seasons ago.

They've got Jonathan Drouin back for the playoffs, and the forward scored the winner in his first game in more than three months in Thursday's 4-2 victory over New Jersey.

Drouin started an injury-filled season by asking for a trade when he was sent to AHL Syracuse. When he didn't get it, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft went home. He didn't return until early March, then served a suspension for leaving his minor league assignment.

"It's been a weird season," Drouin said. "It feels great to be back up here playing hockey, the thing I wanted to do. You realize sitting at home is not what you want to do."

His next opponent will soon relate.

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