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The NHL's 7 Biggest Team Rivalries of All Time

Andrew CapitelliContributor IJanuary 11, 2017

The NHL's 7 Biggest Team Rivalries of All Time

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    For any NHL fan, there are always special games worth circling on the calendar. Ones that command an additional amount of excitement and bring out both the best, and in some cases, the worst in fans.

    The beauty of the rivalry game is the intoxicating atmosphere; and even more so if it's a matchup of teams in close proximity. When a stadium is split 70/30 or even 60/40, it's really something special.

    In a league that has existed for nearly 100 years, and which boasts 30 franchises, there's no shortage of rivalry possibilities. But it's the league's longevity and playoff format that are largely responsible for the birth of dozens of grudge matches.

    But when choosing which of the rivalries are a step above the rest, one must consider the two team's proximity to one another, the length of their rivalry, the fan's level of passion, and most importantly, their shared playoff history.

    So here they are; the seven most exciting, intense and passion-inducing rivalries in the history of the NHL. Because after all, it's rivalries that fuel passion, and passion that fuels hockey.  

New York Rangers vs New York Islanders

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    The rivalry between the Rangers and Islanders is one which can easily be overlooked by many fans of the NHL who don't live in the metropolitan area. 

    A major reason for that is because the teams haven't seen playoff action against each other since 1994.  Also, the fact that both franchises have went through non-competitive droughts at different times means that many of their matchups over the past two decades haven't had a great deal of importance. 

    But that doesn't mean the fans' passion has subsided.

    Seeing a Rangers/Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum truly is a treat. Watching hockey in a stadium which is nearly at 50/50 capacity is a privilege every hockey fan should have the opportunity to enjoy; the atmosphere is that amazing.

    The fan's hostility literally pours onto the ice. The last thing each team's fan base wants is to be serenaded by their counterparts on their way out of the joint after their team has been handed a loss. And it's evident the players feel the same way.

    The intensity of this rivalry is drawn straight from the two teams' proximity to one another. And the fans absolutely love it. It doesn't matter what position the teams are in the standings, Rangers/Islanders is the hot ticket in New York when the two teams meet. 

    With the Rangers' recent successes and the Islanders' bright future, the hockey world may be treated to some relevant New York on New York hockey action sooner rather than later. 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

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    By far the most hyped-up of the modern day rivalries. It really is a dream scenario for the NHL; their two brightest stars on two Eastern Conference powerhouses, there's bound to be fireworks.

    But the truth is is that these two teams had history before Crosby and Ovechkin were even a thought.

    They've met eight times in the playoffs, and the Penguins have won all of those series except one. But tensions boiled over late in the 90's, when the two teams faced each other in back-to-back first-round series. Both were won by Pittsburgh.

    The following year, in 2001, things got even more interesting. Penguins legend Jaromir Jagr forced his way out of Pittsburgh and ended up being traded to none other than Washington. 

    After the lockout, both teams were awarded their superstar draft picks in Crosby and Ovechkin and entered rebuilding stages. They quickly became the best two teams in the Eastern Conference, and thus, their playoff and regular season battles have tailored one of the best rivalries in the sport.

    What makes a rivalry great is the hatred the players have toward each other. It's no secret Ovechkin and Crosby don't like each other, but when players like Alex Semin and Kris Letang publicly voice their feelings of hatred toward one another, you've got something pretty special on your hands. 

    Even countrymen Ovechkin and Malkin have found themselves in several tussles over the years. It's bound to happen when both teams are expected to win year in and year out, and even more so when they both have a fair amount of say in where the other finishes each season.

    The culmination of it all came in 2009, when the two teams met in the conference semifinals. It took seven games, but eventually Pittsburgh took the series. The most memorable of those games was game two, where both Ovechkin and Crosby netted hat tricks.

Colorado Avalanche vs Detroit Red Wings

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    The Colorado and Detroit rivalry is vintage 90's hockey.

    From 1996 to 2002, the NHL was seemingly under siege, and the Wings and Avs were the culprits. In those seven seasons, both teams won a combined five cups, three for Detroit and two for Colorado.

    The 1995-96 season was the first season the Avalanche played in Colorado after moving from Quebec. En route to taking the Cup that season, the Avs, and more particularly Claude Lemieux, planted the seeds for one of hockey's most vicious rivalries of all time. 

    The hit in question was something Detroit fans and players were not ready to forget. Although nothing was reciprocated in the first three meetings of the following season, the fourth appearance was when tensions reached an all time high. 

    After a scuffle between Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov, Red Wing Darren McCarty felt it was the perfect time to return Lemieux's year-old favor. McCarty jumped him and threw several punches as Lemeiux laid face down on the ice. Colorado goalie Patrick Roy took matters into his own hands and attempted to come to his teammate's aid, but was stopped by Detroit's Brendan Shanahan. 

    What ensued was a classic showdown of the masked men.

    Mike Vernon left his crease to protect his teammates and ended up squaring off with Roy. Though the game eventually resumed, the remaining time was littered with stoppages for additional fights and the like. A detailed video of the night's festivities can be seen here

    For years hostility remained high between the two clubs, with brawls becoming a common occurrence. Roy again found himself in the thick of things, going toe to toe with two additional Wings goalies (Hasek and Osgood) while McCarty and Lemeiux certainly weren't shy about rekindling their melee.

    As time went on, and players switched clubs, the match up lost a great deal of its potency. Nevertheless, those few years were a ride, one of the most vicious and tense rivalries this league has ever seen. 

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Ottawa Senators

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    In 1992, Ottawa received its new NHL franchise. That meant Ontario wasn't solely Leafs country anymore. 

    Strangely enough, despite occupying the same province, the two clubs were in different conferences. It wasn't until 1998 that the Maple Leafs made their way to the Eastern Conference, and more importantly, the Northeast Division where they could accompany the Senators.

    And what timing it was. Both teams were playing excellent hockey at the end of the millennium, and in Toronto's first season out east, the two teams finished one and two in the Northeast Division. Unfortunately,Toronto, led by Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas, and Ottawa, led by Alexei Yashin, did not meet in the playoffs that season.

    But the following season they did. And what it did was take the rivalry to new heights.

    They met in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, all of which were won by the Leafs. The last meeting came in 2002, and it saw the Leafs advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

    In 2002-03, there was the infamous Tucker/Neil bench scene which intensified things even more in preparation for the two teams' fourth playoff series in five years in the following 2003-04 campaign. Despite Daniel Alfredsson guaranteeing victory in that series, the Leafs once again were victorious.

    Following the lockout, the Leafs have remained comfortable at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, while the Senators saw mixed results that included a Cup Finals berth in 2007. 

Edmonton Oilers vs Calgary Flames

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    This is another one of those rivalries where it doesn't matter which players are lacing them up for either team; the passion of the fans spills onto the ice and the players feed off their energy. 

    The origins of this rivalry date back to 1980, the first season in which the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary. The teams' close proximity made them rivals immediately. 

    Despite Calgary playing catch-up most of the time to the powerhouse that was Edmonton, it was their own host of star players that made the '80s an exciting and competitive time for the two clubs. Players like Lanny McDonald, Al MacInnis and Mike Vernon made the Flames a very formidable outfit. 

    Over the next eight seasons, both teams took the league by storm.

    One of them appeared in every single Stanley Cup Final from 1983 to 1990, with the Oilers claiming five championships and the Flames just one.

    During those eight seasons, the teams faced off in the playoffs four times—1983, 1984, 1986, 1988—and one additional time in 1991. Edmonton won them all except for the series in 1986, which featured the devastating own goal by Oilers rookie Steve Smith. The goal saw the Flames through to the conference finals in a year which inevitably saw them defeated by Montreal in the Cup Final.

    The 1991 series was won by Edmonton with an overtime goal by Esa Tikkanen. Despite it being only a first round matchup, it is considered by many to be one of the most exciting playoff series ever.

    Since that 1991 season, both teams saw significant drops in performance until 2004 and 2006, which saw the Flames and Oilers partake in two consecutive Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes respectively. 

    And even since then, both teams have found themselves stuck near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, yet it hasn't come at the expense of a drop in quality of the fabled Battle of Alberta.

New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils

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    The Battle of the Hudson.

    10 miles is all the separates the Rangers and the Devils, but that's not why Rangers fans and Devils fans would consider the other their biggest rivals. It's because of the two clubs' extensive playoff history over the past 20 years.

    The first playoff series to feature the two came in 1992, but it wasn't until two years later that the rivalry really caught fire.

    The 1994 Eastern Conference Finals cannot be classified any other way other than epic. In the end, Stephane Matteau's overtime winner saw New York advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, which they won. The next season, it was the Devils who claimed hockey's holy grail. 

    After an Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup in 1997, the two teams failed to appear in the same series until 2006. But that didn't quell the intensity of the rivalry. At one point during those nine years, the Devils went unbeaten by the Rangers in 23 regular season games.

    To further rub salt into Rangers fans wounds, the Devils also won an additional two Cups over that period of time.

    Last year, the two teams met in the playoffs for the third time in six years. The Devils defeated the Rangers in what was a very entertaining ECF.

    Although the Rangers are leaders in the all-time regular season series, it's a Devils player that epitomizes the rivalry. Marty Brodeur has literally seen it all in this matchup, and his rocky relationship with the City of New York and its fans is something that will be sorely missed once he hangs 'em up.

    But that doesn't mean the rivalry is anywhere near its end. There has been much in the past few years that has proven the modern reincarnation has the potential to carry the torch in noble fashion.  

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

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    There has never been a matchup in NHL history featured more so than Bruins vs. Canadiens. 

    Their first meeting came on December 8, 1924, and their first playoff matchup came 5 years later. It would be the first of 33 times they would meet in the playoffs. 

    But dominance and violence have made this rivalry what it is today.

    From 1965-1979, either the Candiens or Bruins (or both) appeared in every Stanley Cup Finals but one. They faced off against each other in both 1977 and 1978. Over this period of time, the Canadiens won 10 Cups, while the Bruins only won two.

    To further the intensity of this matchup, there have been several on-ice incidents that have taken this rivalry to another level, two of which required police involvement. 

    There was the Rocket Richard/Hal Laycoe incident in 1955, which began with Laycoe high-sticking Richard and ending with Richard being suspended for the balance of the 1955 regular season and playoff schedule.

    In between, Richard trampled Laycoe, punched a linesmen and was almost arrested by Boston police. When Montreal players blockaded the police escort of Richard, the officers believed it was in their best interest to admit defeat and allow the league to tend to their own issues. 

    Some 56 years later, law enforcement again found themselves involved in this storied rivalry.

    Zdeno Chara's late hit on Max Pacioretty in March of 2011 saw Pacioretty's season ended with a neck injury. Although perceived by many to be a clean hit, Montreal management and players, including Pacioretty, believed Chara should have been suspended. He wasn't, and eventually it was announced that Montreal police planned to conduct a criminal investigation of the matter.

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