It is impossible to blame the NBC Sports Network for pouncing on the first installment of the Boston Bruins’ and Montreal Canadiens’ 2012-13 season series as the third edition of its new Wednesday Night Rivalry theme.
Little to no extra effort is needed in the way of bridging the past with the present for America’s oldest NHL franchise and the only franchise to predate the league. It does not hurt to know that these teams will converge at a time when they are one point apart in the upper echelon of the Northeast Division.
But the standings are still taking shape in this belated, shortened season, meaning there is still time for the likes of the New York Rangers to restore the persona they left off on last year. Likewise, there is still time for the Habs to cool off after a fairly unexpected 6-2-0 start.
Give the 4-5-0 Rangers at least until the end of this calendar month before plucking off their contender's certificate for the rest of this season. Ditto any urge to anoint the Canadiens as a reckonable squad.
Granted, distant and recent history―complete with an unmatched 33 playoff encounters, including three since 2008―means the animosity between Boston and Montreal is not tumbling to irrelevance any time soon.
That is no discredit to the Boston-Montreal feud. This ruling has everything to do with the plus points in the Bruins-Rangers matchup. Everything from the preseason state of those teams to their respective media markets to the hunger of their fans to the comparable products they have put on the ice in recent memory.
The only other current contender in this category is Chicago-Detroit.
Being the lone Original Six franchises in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks and Red Wings have no one but each other in this department. With that said, the Central Division feud has been back in good health since the franchises crossed paths in the 2009 NHL Winter Classic amidst Chicago’s return to playoff qualification.
Canada has its historic Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry with Toronto as another Northeast Division resident. But a lack of postseason action since the 2004-05 lockout on Toronto’s part has made the matchup difficult to market beyond the partisan fanbases involved.
With this season still young and the landscape of the league still raw, the Bruins and Blueshirts remain the storied matchup to beat. They are coming off a year that saw them top their respective divisions and place first and second in the Eastern Conference.
In some respects, the teams in question are mirror images. Their success is heavily indebted to world-class goaltending and they support that goaltending with gritty team defense and put forth a generally balanced offensive attack.
But the Sox are now languishing lightyears away from contention and the Pats have met a New York team in three of the last six postseasons. The time is right for the New England and New York markets to undergo a change of pace and have another set of teams cross crucial paths in another sport.
It would be hard to take any Bruins or Rangers fans seriously if they claim not to be enticed by the prospect of facing off in the second or third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This is not to say that the Bruins-Habs matchup will have suddenly lost its luster were Montreal to build on its 6-2-0 start, rebound from its last-place finish and meet Boston in another best-of-seven. After all, not so long ago, the Canadiens’ last playoff run ended instantaneously on April 27, 2011 at Boston’s TD Garden when Nathan Horton slugged home a Game 7 overtime clincher.
For the fans with a fixed emotional stake, Bruins-Canadiens can never decline in appeal any more than Red Sox-Yankees could. That is, at least, when both sides are playoff-caliber and thus potential postseason adversaries.
But unlike Montreal, the Bruins and Rangers have been in a steady state in recent memory. The Habs are just delving into a new era under second-time skipper Michel Therrien.
Conversely, Boston capped off its fourth season under head coach Claude Julien with a title in 2011. The Bruins have retained the vast bulk of their Cup core and repeated as Northeast Division champions last year.
Those two elements are not unlike what defined the pleasantly surprising plus points from the Bruins’ 2008-09 season, wherein they likewise finished first and had a goalie garner the Vezina.
If the NHL is to rapidly rebound from lost time and lost fanfare via the recent lockout, one way to get an assist from fate is an enticing Original Six postseason clash. Of the potential combinations to deliver that, the Bruins-Rangers matchup is the ripest for picking.
Boston and New York have not met in the playoffs since 1973, but are both certifiable championship contenders now. The former franchise is catering to a fanbase that looks back at 2011 and asks “Why stop there?” while the latter, most naturally, has more fulfillment left to attain.
Bruins-Canadiens has nothing to be ashamed of as a relatively close second in the current Original Six rivalry rankings. It can still invigorate two dressing rooms, two benches and two sides of the 49th parallel in the northeastern portion of this continent.
It could even reclaim its throne before this regular season is finished.
Even with the relatively uncertain state of Detroit’s franchise, the bronze-medalist Blackhawks-Red Wings card can still be a great favor in the Great Lakes to the NHL’s PR department.
But as long as the longest-tenured franchise in the Cyclopean New York market is matching the heavyweight status of the longest-tenured franchise in the United States, New England’s team at that, there is no better Original Six rivalry.