Top 5 Current Rivalries in the NHL

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By Bryant Li – Summer Staff Writer

Hockey is one of the most exciting sports to watch, if not the most exciting, especially live and in-person.  Combining the speed, size, skill, and physicality of the players with the fact that there are often very few stoppages and you have a sport that constantly requires attention or you can miss the most exciting moment. Not only that, but it’s one of the hardest sports to play because it requires so much skill.  Brendan Shanahan said it best when he said, “We need to have the strength and power of a football player, the stamina of a marathon runner, and the concentration of a brain surgeon. But we need to put all this together while moving at high speeds on a cold and slippery surface while 5 other guys use clubs to try and kill us, oh yeah did i mention that this whole time we’re standing on blades ⅛ of an inch thick?”.  In the history of the NHL some of the greatest sports rivalries ever have been born. This article is exploring the top 5 current rivalries between teams that happen to be in the same division… also including some honorable mentions.

  1. Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs
Source: Montreal Gazette

This one is a no brainer.  Two of the original six teams with some of the most passionate and prideful fan bases in the NHL.  The Bruins carry the pride of being a Boston sports team and the Leafs being perhaps the biggest market in the NHL.  Not only that, but in the past 10 years the two teams have met in the first round of the playoffs three times (‘13, ‘18, ‘19) including the last two years, with all of the series going the distance. These series have also been some of the most memorable in recent years, particularly the 2013 series due to the Bruins making a miraculous comeback from 4-1 in the 3rd period of game 7 to steal the series in overtime on a goal by Patrice Bergeron.  A look at the other two series also shows how intense the hatred is between these two teams, led on the ice by “pest” players like Brad Marchand and Nazem Kadri.  Marchand’s antics and being the “player you want on your team but otherwise hate” naturally draws the ire of both the opposing players and fans.  When it comes the leafs, Kadri is the best of their players at being a “pest”, and no Bruins fan is likely to forget Kadri’s cross check to the face of Jake DeBrusk that cost him, and possibly his team, the rest of the series in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.  These antics combined with the intensity of every playoff game has re-ignited the flame of this original 6 rivalry.

In the past Toronto hasn’t been nearly as good as Boston, resulting in the rivalry not being as competitive.  However, Toronto has recently become a superstar studded team led by their “Big 3” of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares.  Not to be outdone, the Bruins have had a “Big 3” of their own emerge recently led by upcoming superstar David Pastrnak along with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.  The debate over which team has the better “Big 3” has been an argument with no definitive answer, but as expected it has added fuel to the rivalry between the two teams, at least from a fan standpoint. This became a more popular topic when Toronto decided to make its “Big 3” the three highest paid players in the league, compared to the Bruins’ “Big 3” that makes just 60% of what Toronto’s does. Fans on both sides of the rivalry naturally believe their team’s “Big 3” is the best of the two teams, with Bruins fans often pointing to the lack of playoff success and inconsistency of the Leafs during the regular season. The fact that these teams are both in the Atlantic division makes the battles between these teams even more intense since they see each other quite often during the regular season.

The teams’ storied history with legendary players like Bobby Orr and Mats Sundin  and recent playoff clashes combined with their superstars and passionate fan bases make this rivalry the best in the NHL at the moment.

  1. Edmonton Oilers vs Calgary Flames
Source: Edmonton Journal

Dubbed “The Battle of Alberta”, the rivalry between these two Canadian teams has certainly heated up in recent years.  In the past these teams haven’t had much success but they’re now both on the rise with the emergence of their own superstars and this has given their fans reason to come back and support their team again with a new found passion.  Edmonton has perhaps the next “Great One” in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combining to form one of the greatest duos in the league, while Calgary has the likes of “Johnny Hockey” (Johnny Gaudreau) and Matthew Tkachuk leading their team.  Not only that, but the teams each have their own “pest” players and “enforcers”.  On the oilers you have Zack Kassian who plays both roles and for Calgary you have Milan Lucic as the “enforcer” and Tkachuck playing the role of the “pest”.  Quite a few players have also been on both sides of the Battle of Alberta in the last two years with James Neal and Mike Smith going to Edmonton from Calgary and Lucic and Cam Talbot doing the opposite.

The last few games between these two rivals has resulted in some of the nastiest yet most exciting hockey seen in recent years.  One can’t forget when Kassian was suspended for rag-dolling Tkachuck after he delivered two questionable hits on him, only to return from his suspension to play Calgary again and fight Tkachuck legitimately this time.  Not only that but the shootout antics of netminder David Rittich when stopping Draisaitl had Draisaitl calling for him to “show some respect”.  Perhaps the most exciting event in the Battle of Alberta came in the last meeting between the two teams when goaltenders Mike Smith and Cam Talbot squared off at center ice after a scrum at the net caused Talbot to lose his cool.  Oilers fans won’t soon forget that Flames captain Mark Giordano ended McDavid’s season last year on a diving trip and caused the superstar forward to have a serious leg injury that almost made him miss the beginning of the season.

The hatred between the teams and specific players like Kassian and Tkachuck paired with the resurgence of the teams due to their new superstars has revived this rivalry and given the fans a new reason to get back into the rivalry that could possibly see the teams face off in playoff series for the first time in 29 years.

  1. Vegas Golden Knights vs San Jose Sharks

The newest team in the NHL already has their rival.  Thought to be the Los Angeles Kings, the rival of the Vegas Golden Knights is actually the San Jose Sharks.  Another California team, but not the one that people were expecting at all.  Thanks to their two playoff meetings in their two years of existence, the Vegas San Jose rivalry has become one of the best in the league.  In their inaugural season in 2018, the Knights met the Sharks in the second round of the playoffs en route to their trip to the Stanley Cup Final.  They followed that up with a first round meeting in 2019 that resulted in one of the most controversial calls in recent playoff history.

In the third period of game 7 in San Jose, the Knights were up 4-1in the 3rd period before Joe Pavelski fell off the faceoff and ended up leaving with a head injury. There was no penalty originally called on the play but the referees ended up handing Cody Eakin a 5 minute major after a discussion.  This powerplay resulted in the Sharks coming all the way back and scoring 4 goals in 4:01 to take the lead before Jonathan Marchessault scored to take the game to overtime.  Barclay Goodrow scored with just 1:41 left in the first overtime to complete the Sharks comeback.  This was the most talked about story of the first round because of how controversial the call against the Knights was.  Many saw the event that injured Pavelski as an accident with no intention to hurt the Sharks centerman at all, and they believed no penalty should’ve been called at all; likely resulting in a Knights’ series win rather than a Sharks’ win.

Like the Oilers and Flames, the Knights and Sharks each have their own “tough guys”.  The Knights have Ryan Reaves, whom many believe to be the toughest player in the NHL; and the Sharks have Evander Kane, who has recently struck up a rivalry with Reaves.  Reaves has dubbed himself “Kane’s worst nightmare” while Kane called Reaves “the muffin man” after the two had a bout in game 3 of last year’s playoff series.

The passion and pride of the Vegas fans adds a significant energy to the rivalry whenever the teams play each other.  Vegas fans were ecstatic when they received an NHL team, especially when they made a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season.  Not only that, but the way the team brought the city together after the Las Vegas shooting drew even more support for the team and created more fans who weren’t into hockey before.  The passion of the fans on both sides and the events in recent playoff matchups has made this one of the best new rivalries of the league.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals

“Sid the Kid” vs the “Great 8”.  The greatest player of his generation vs the greatest goalscorer of all time.  This has been a rivalry ever since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were drafted 1st overall in consecutive years and it will continue to be one until they retire.  Up until 2018, the Penguins have always been able to best the Capitals.  The two teams met in the second round of the playoffs every year from 2016-2018 with the Penguins winning in 2016 and 2017 en route to back to back Stanley Cups before the Capitals finally beat them in 2018 en route to the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup. While it seems that both Crosby and Ovechkin are past their prime, they certainly don’t perform that way.  Neither of them seem to be slowing down anytime soon and when their teams play each other they seem to bring out the best of each other, as shown by their “Dueling Hat Tricks” game in the second round of the playoffs in 2009 where they both scored hat tricks.

The two rivals have also been featured in the annual NHL Winter Classic outdoor game, one which many Penguins fans dread.  The 2011 Winter Classic was the beginning of Crosby’s concussion issues when Caps’ forward David Steckel accidentally clipped his head when he was passing him.  Since then Crosby’s concussion issues have significantly limited the number of games he’s been able to play, and this doesn’t sit well with Penguins fans.  

The recent success of both teams has given fans a reason to support their team and be passionate about them, especially when they both have future hall of fame players that are some of the best to ever play the game.  That paired with the history of the two teams with super stars like Al Iafrate and Dale Hunter from the Capitals to “Super” Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr from the Penguins.  In particular, the past success of the Penguins with back to back championships in 1991 and 1992 and back to back Stanley Cup Final runs in 2008 and 2009 with a championship in 2009 undoubtedly makes them some of the most passionate fans in the league.  Forbes even chose the Penguins’ fans as “the most passionate” fans in the NHL in 2020.

Having once in a lifetime superstars like Crosby and Ovechkin as well as three playoff series in the last five years, all of which have resulted in championships for the winning team, creates a rivalry unlike most in the league.  

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs Philadelphia Flyers

“The Battle of Pennsylvania” is one of the most intense rivalries in the league.  The team from the “City of Brotherly Love” shows no such thing to its cross-state rival.  The Battle of Pennsylvania always produces one of the most physical games with the Flyers formerly being the “Broad Street Bullies” and being known for their physicality.  While the Flyers are no longer the “Broad Street Bullies”, they are still known for playing a style of game where they don’t back down against anyone.  The teams also both have “legendary treason” among the players who have played for both teams.  Penguins legend Jaromir Jagr and 2009 Stanley Cup Final hero Max Talbot have both played for the Flyers, while Flyers legends John LeClair and Mark Recchi have played for the Penguins.  These “back-stabbing signings” only added more fuel to the already intensely-burning fire for the fans on both sides.  

Both teams have some of the most passionate fans in the league as well.  Penguins fans back their recent championships and once in a generation superstar Crosby, while Flyers fans are some of the rowdiest and most disliked fans in the league alongside the Bruins’ fans.  In the eyes of both fanbases, whenever the two teams play it’s a battle of “Good vs Evil”.  The Flyers being a team with a mean streak and not afraid to get dirty, while the Penguins being the “goody-two-shoes” of the league as the refs protect and are lenient to Crosby.  Current Flyers captain and star Claude Giroux described it best when he said “We don’t like each other… but the fact is we don’t like each other”.

The Penguins and Flyers both have their star power as well. The Penguins are led by Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while the Flyers are led by Giroux and Jakub Voracek.  The two stars each led their teams in a more recent outdoor Stadium Series game which added even more fuel to the rivalry when Brandon Manning took a run at Penguins play Zach Aston-Reese.

The history of the teams and their superstars combined with their current status as cross-state rivals has made this rivalry a top 5 rivalry in the league.

Honorable mentions: Los Angeles Kings vs Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins vs Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers vs New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens vs Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche vs Detroit Red Wings

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