The 5 Key Ingredients of a Great NHL Playoff Rivalry
The NHL playoffs rarely fail to provide sports fans with unbelievable excitement on a nightly basis, but what really makes the postseason worth watching is the rivalries between teams that don't like each other.
Whether they are teams that have formed rivalries in recent seasons or Original Six franchises that have battled for eight decades, there's nothing quite like the intense style of play and emotion that NHL rivalries display during the playoffs.
Let's look at five key ingredients for a great playoff rivalry.
Geographical Proximity And/or Playing in Same Division
When there are two teams that are geographically close to each other, they almost always form rivalries because the two fanbases clash on a daily basis and these clubs are normally placed in the same division.
Divisional opponents meet six times every season, which can create a lot of animosity between them that leads to fantastic playoff rivalries.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins are arguably the best example of a rivalry between two teams fighting for in-state bragging rights that also compete in the same division.
Much like two in-state rivals in college sports, the Flyers and Penguins are constantly battling to be the best team in Pennsylvania. The fact that these teams don't like each other and have played in the playoffs four times in this century has impacted this rivalry, but the geographical factor also plays a huge role.
Not only do the fans and players dislike each other, but the media in the two cities also often get involved in the rivalry. The front page of The Philadelphia Daily News before Game 4 of last year's Penguins and Flyers first-round series was a good example of how the media becomes part of geographical rivalries.
A few other good geographical rivalries include:
- New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders
- New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils
- Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
- Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Ottawa Senators
- Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks
- Detroit Red Wings vs. Chicago Blackhawks
On-ice incidents often create the hatred between two teams that ultimately leads to a fierce rivalry.
These types of incidents include line brawls, a normal fight between two players, a dirty hit that injuries someone or an unprofessional play, like shooting the puck at someone after the whistle.
In the 1996 Western Conference playoffs, Colorado Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux broke Detroit Red Wings forward Kris Draper's jaw with a hit to the head along the boards (video above). This incident sent the Red Wings and Avalanche rivalry to another level and made it one of the fiercest in all of sports.
A more recent incident was a line brawl between the Flyers and Penguins in their final regular-season meeting last year. What started as a huge hit by Penguins forward Joe Vitale on Flyers star center Danny Briere turned into multiple players fighting, which set the stage for a memorable and physical six-game first-round series between these rivals just two weeks later.
These types of incidents play a huge role in helping teams develop a dislike toward one another, which results in emotional rivalries that last for many years.
Multiple Playoff Battles
Rivalries are usually born in the playoffs, and even though it only takes one series to spark a dislike between two teams, multiple postseason meetings are how the best rivalries take shape.
Even though the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins have played in some memorable regular-season games filled with fights, physical play, lots of scoring and a high level of intensity, the main reason why these historic franchises have the best rivalry in the league is because they have met in the playoffs an NHL-record 33 times.
Competing in a playoff series against the same opponent multiple times, which results in one team ending the other's dream of winning the Stanley Cup, is the most effective way to form rivalries. Losses from the playoffs hurt much more than defeats in the regular season, especially when one team has won the majority of the postseason series (Montreal has an all-time 24-9 series record versus Boston).
Falling short of winning the best trophy in sports is tough for every player and team, but when that failure results from a loss to a bitter rival, it's a memory you will never forget.
Multiple playoff series also help teams that don't often meet during the regular season form rivalries. The Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks only play three or four times each year because they are in separate divisions, but because these franchises have played in the postseason three times in the past four years, their rivalry is alive and strong again.
One of the most recent examples of teams creating a rivalry after a single playoff matchup was the 2011 Stanley Cup Final between the Canucks and Bruins, which was one of the most entertaining and physical series in a long time. But these two teams play in separate conferences and play each other just once or twice in the regular season, so it's tough to form a rivalry because meeting in the Stanley Cup Final on a regular basis is highly unlikely.
Genuine Dislike for Other Team and Trash Talk
Whether it's two stars, two coaches or a whole team of players, when there is a genuine dislike or hatred between two rivals, it creates an in-game atmosphere that includes the passion and physicality you expect from the playoffs.
This dislike can be born from many different things, including previous playoff series, an on-ice incident between the two teams, a long history or regular-season matchups (divisional rivals) and trash talk.
Speaking of trash talk, this is how rivalries get more and more heated even when the two teams aren't battling on the ice.
In the first round of this year's playoffs, Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean and Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien have been involved in a war of words.
Shortly after MacLean called a timeout with 17 seconds left in Ottawa's 6-1 Game 3 victory, Therrien expressed his frustration to the media during a postgame press conference (via Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada):
Therrien calls timeout classless...doesn't want to hear any excuses for it— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 6, 2013
MacLean: I'm classless? This is another disrespectful thing? They were doing a good job of (humiliating) themselves...dont need my help."— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 6, 2013
Just a few days prior to Game 3, Canadiens forward Brandon Prust insulted MacLean (per Renaud Lavoie of RDS):
Brandon Prust: "we don't care what that bug-eyed fat walrus say."-on Paul MacLean.— Renaud Lavoie (@RenLavoieRDS) May 3, 2013
Trash talk intensifies rivalries, and it adds to the dislike and hatred these teams have toward each other.
Star Players Going Head-to-Head to Win the Stanley Cup
Many rivalries that we have seen in the NHL have centered around a couple of superstars, most of whom are usually the players that opposing fanbases love to hate.
When these types of stars are battling to reach the Stanley Cup Final, it often produces their best performances, which gives fans some incredible moments that we will never forget.
One example of two superstars adding another element to a rivalry is Penguins star Sidney Crosby and Flyers forward Claude Giroux.
These two captains set a great example for their team with strong leadership and exceptional on-ice performance. These two stars' one-on-one battles also inspire their teammates and increase the energy of the fans. Giroux and Crosby's play rose to the forefront of their first-round playoff series last season and created much of the conversation before, during and after the six games.
Here are some other examples of star players helping to create great rivalries with their own personal competition:
- Brad Marchand (BOS) vs. P.K. Subban (MTL)
- Jonathan Toews (CHI) vs. Joe Thornton (SJS)
- Shane Doan (PHX) vs. Dustin Brown (LAK)
- Dion Phaneuf (TOR) vs. Scott Hartnell (PHI)