The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins are now entrenched in the most heated rivalry in the NHL. Before their contest on December 7, hostilities were at a "Walk" by Pantera level. Tempers would flair here and there, but games between the Eastern Conference foes weren't typically dangerous affairs.
In the amount of time it took for James Neal to knee Brad Marchand in the head and for Shawn Thornton to skate down the ice and assault Brooks Orpik, the animosity went to a "Warborn" by the Black Dahlia Murder level.
This new clash of the titans between the Pens and B's has now been baptized in blood, much like the battle between the Avs and Wings was. At first, it was just two outstanding hockey teams chock full of good players going at it, and then suddenly, things got personal when a player crossed over the line.
Before Claude Lemieux dropped Kris Draper's face onto a dasher with his elbow, Detroit and Colorado were just superb teams that wanted to win a hockey game. After Lemieux's cheap shot, they wanted to win, and they wanted to hurt each other.
Before Neal beheaded Marchand and before Thornton dead punched Orpik, the two squads seemed friendly enough when chatting about the rivalry.
Prior to the star-crossed contest, Boston winger Daniel Paille spoke to Dave Molinari of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and had this to say about playing the Penguins: "The rivalry is there. Montreal is obviously a historic rivalry, but Pittsburgh, with [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and their whole lineup, they have a group where you want to play your best.
Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland added:
I'd definitely put it right up there. It seems to be always close games and a battle from start to finish. I would definitely say there's a little bit of hate between the teams. It's a good battle every game, and a lot of fun out there.
When Neal kneed Marchand and when Thornton popped Orpik, that's when things got personal. When Pascal Dupuis broke Chris Kelly's ankle on a slash during the second period of the contest, that was proof that things had escalated from fun rivalry to blood feud.
While the contest on the seventh was clearly a boiling point and sent this conflict to another stratosphere, this is hardly a random occurrence between two teams that viewed each other as neutral prior to the game. The hatred between franchises can be traced all the way back to 1980s, when the Bruins accused the Penguins of stealing their colors when Pittsburgh switched to black and gold.
And who can forget Ulf Samuelsson taking the knees out from underneath Cam Neely during the Conference Finals in 1991? Or Matt Cooke's headshot on Marc Savard on March 7, 2010?
No, this isn't a new rivalry, but this degree is fresh and it doesn't seem likely to recede between now and whenever these two teams meet again. It's unclear when that will be because the Penguins and Bruins don't face each other again during the regular season.
The operative phrase there is regular though, since the path to the Stanley Cup via the Eastern Conference leads directly through Pittsburgh and Boston. If you look at the conference standings at the moment, it's Penguins No. 1, Bruins No. 2.
In fact, both of these teams have been so consistently outstanding that you have to go all the way back to 2009-10 campaign to find the last time that one of the two squads weren't in the top four in the East. The Bruins were sixth that year.
It's that level of consistency and greatness that makes this suddenly UFC/WWE-esque rivalry something special. The injuries to Loui Eriksson and Orpik were unfortunate to say the least, but how fired up will Crosby be the next time he takes on the Bruins?
How long will it take for Zdeno Chara to level one of Pittsburgh's players the way Orpik smashed Eriksson?
The talent level on both sides of the ice is nothing short of supreme, and now both the B's and Penguins have something more to play for besides bragging rights or the right to play for the Stanley Cup. They have fallen comrades to elevate their games for. They have motivation beyond that of your normal sports rivalry.
On December 6, Pittsburgh and Boston were just two prime teams vying for a place in the standings. When the dust cleared on December 8, one player was in the hospital, another had a broken ankle and two others were facing down lengthy suspensions.
On December 8, the bout between Boston and Pittsburgh was elevated from mid-card fight to perhaps one of the most heated struggles in professional sports right now. Sooner or later, these two teams will meet again, and it won't be a "the two points are more important revenge" scenario. This is just the beginning, and the league now has an actual rivalry to sport during their usual Wednesday Night Rivalry games on NBCSN.
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