In the 2018-2019 NHL season it’s been the Tampa Bay Lightning and everybody else. The Lightning have run away with both the overall league race for the President’s Trophy and the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Bolts enter this game at 43-11-4 good for 90 points. That puts them 15 points ahead of the second team in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It also puts them 15 points up on Western Conference co-leaders Calgary, Winnipeg and San Jose.
What’s been particularly impressive about Tampa Bay’s performance this season is that it hasn’t diminished even as their lead over the rest of the league has increased. You think at some point that the Lightning would lose some intensity without a challenger within the same area code in the standings but they just keep on winning. They’re 7-1-2 in their last 10 games and enter this matchup on a 4 game winning streak. On Saturday, they’ll face the Montreal Canadiens in what could be a challenging game.
The Montreal Canadiens have been playing reasonably well but it hasn’t really gotten them anywhere. The Habs are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games but enter this matchup having lost two straight albeit to very tough teams (home to Toronto, on the road to Nashville). From one perspective, they have to be pleased how well they’ve bounced back from a miserable 2017-2018 season. They almost have as many points as they accumulated all of last year (they’ve got 69 now, they got 71 all last season) but for all their hard work they find themselves in sixth place in the Eastern Conference–and very tenuously so. They’re 2 points up on the 7th and 8th teams (Columbus and Pittsburgh), 3 points up on the surging Carolina Hurricanes and 6 points up on the Buffalo Sabres.
To be fair, the rest of the Eastern Conference doesn’t have much more security in their current situation. Only 12 total points separate the second place Toronto Maple Leafs from the 10th place Buffalo Sabres. Should the Canadiens be able to go on a nice winning run they could move up in the standings quickly and significantly. They trail the fifth place Washington Capitals by 2 points, the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders by 5 points and the second place Leafs by six points. This matchup starts a 7 game sequence against Eastern Conference opponents so its not hyperbole to suggest that the Habs can make or break their season before the end of the month.
Ultimately, sports betting is about finding value and based on that we’ll back the Montreal Canadiens here. With all due respect to what Tampa Bay has accomplished this year it’s hard to buy them as a nearly 2 to 1 favorite over a very solid Habs team. The Lightning have held the edge in head to head play of late winning 7 of the last 10 head to head including 4 of 5 at home. Even so, it’s hard seeing the Bolts having the same degree of intensity in what is a much more important game for Montreal.