5 Biggest Rivalries in NHL of the Past 5 Years

Ian MathesonContributor IIIAugust 15, 2011

5 Biggest Rivalries in NHL of the Past 5 Years

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    Every sport has its rivalries.

    Some result from playoff battles or on-ice antics, while others are simply a matter of geography or a long history of competition. Games between bitter enemies are often spirited, as the hatred and refusal to give an inch boils over. These meetings can produce some of the most spectacular intensity conceivable, as the struggle for dominance and team pride is on the line waiting to be seized. A crucial moment amongst rivals can produce a hero, or create a villain. 

    Here's a look at some of the biggest and best rivalries in the league from the past 5 years. 

5. Montreal Canadiens vs Toronto Maple Leafs

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    One of the oldest rivalries that carries over among passing generations of fans occurs between the Leafs and Canadiens. Whether it's national pride on the line or merely a history of bad blood, these teams flat out love to hate each other. Since both teams can trace their roots back to the origins of the league as original six clubs, the opportunities to press the issue are abundant.

    One of the things that fuels the fire isn't just the teams however, but the fans too. Both Montreal and Toronto boast some of the most passionate fans in the sport, many of whom flock to each other's arenas to voice their loyalties and cheer on their colors. The fact that both Canadian cities are close to each other makes this rivalry about geography as much as it is about hockey, as both clubs also operate out of the Northeast Division. Their close proximity and a shared division means points are at a premium, and that there are always a handful of games to engage in each year.

    With both teams adding pieces in the off season the rivalry shouldn't slow down either. Montreal brought in some size and scoring with Erik Cole to improve the team, while young defenseman, PK Subban continues to boil blood one province over with his colorful personality and aggressive play. Meanwhile, GM Brian Burke's managed to solidify the team's defense, and add a few offensive wild cards to beef up his roster, which will no doubt raise the team's competitiveness.

    Look for these two to continue to elevate their intensity levels during the upcoming season, as the teams will slug it out a half dozen times over the course of the 82 game campaign.

4. Detroit Red Wings vs San Jose Sharks

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    When it comes to Western Conference dominance, a strong case could be made for both the Red Wings and the Sharks to decide who holds the top spot. Statistically, both teams have been very good over the past few years and have often found themselves facing off in crucial meetings to try and elbow each other down in the standings for first place. Using combinations of highly skilled forwards and high powered offense, there is never a dull moment between these two squads.

    While the argument over regular season dominance between these two remains closely contested, it's the Red Wings that have had greater success over the post season.

    In 2007/08 season, the Wings and Sharks finished first and second in the Western Conference, as Detroit took the edge over the Sharks by capping off the year with the Presidents' trophy. Both clubs did not meet in the playoffs, as the Sharks suffered a disappointing exit to the Dallas Stars in the second round. The Red Wings managed to go on to the finals where they defeated the Penguins and hoisted their franchise's 11th Stanley Cup. The following year, it was San Jose's turn to take the President's trophy, while both teams finished in the top 2 once again. However, a first round upset at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks once again meant that the Sharks and Wings couldn't decide the issue on the ice in the post season. It would take one more year before these teams had their first opportunity since the 06/07 campaign, to go head to head in a 7 game series.

    The 2009/10 campaign took on a different look after the 82 game schedule, with the star-laden Chicago Blackhawks taking Detroit's usual place with the Sharks at the top of the West. Detroit ended the year in 5th place, allowing both teams the opportunity to play each other earlier than the Western Conference finals. The Sharks and Wings met in the second round, which ended in a decisive victory for the Sharks. A rematch would be just a season away.

    Last year's post season saw the Sharks and Wings meet in one of the most exciting series of recent memory. San Jose jumped out to an early lead, only to watch the Wings claw back and force a 7th game. Regardless of the outcome of the series, one things was clearly evident. The mutual respect between the players on both sides, and the highly competitive battle that these two share every year will ensure that this rivalry continues on for many more seasons.

3. Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Caps and Pens are truly one of greatest stories in the league since the lock out. Both clubs managed to draft franchise altering players, and resurrect their fan base and city-wide support dramatically. There have not been two players of the same pedigree as Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin in the sport for a very long time.

    The lock out forced Ovechkin to delay his rookie debut for a year, putting him in the same year as Crosby. From the moment these two players began competing for the Calder trophy, to first place in the conference or the right to advance in the playoffs, this rivalry has had it all. So much so, that i was tempted just to name the slide Crosby vs. Ovechkin and get it out of the way early. However, that would be a disservice to the talent that surrounds these two forwards, that makes this a competition between high class organizations and not just individuals.

    The Capitals have dynamic center Nicklas Backstrom, and sniper Alexander Semin to support Ovechkin offensively, while the Penguins boast an Art Ross winning center from Russia, Evgeni Malkin, to give Crosby some added punch. Solid defense and good goaltending help round out the rosters of two top-notch teams, who will be competing with each other for a long time for Stanley cup glory. But who has had the better of the rivalry so far?

    Apart from the annual regular season bouts for positioning in the standings, both teams have met each other once in the post season as well. They faced off in the 08/09 playoffs during the Conference Semi-Finals, in a series that went the full distance. Washington started off strong, taking the first two games of the series. Both Crosby and Ovechkin didn't disappoint their fans either, as both posted hat-tricks in Game 2. Despite their two game lead however, the Caps lost three straight to face elimination, eventually losing in the seventh game. The Pens then put the exclamation point on their year, finishing it with a cup victory.

    The intensity was far from over between these teams though. Last season, HBO brought their award-winning documentary series, 24/7 to the NHL to showcase the rivalry shared between these teams in an all access show. Fans were provided with an unique look into the league behind closed doors, and saw first hand the pride and emotion felt between these clubs as they geared up to play each other in the Winter Classic. Bad ice and worse weather made for a hack and slash game of spirited hockey in an extravagant outdoor game. This time it was the Capitals that won.

    For Pittsburgh, it was a loss that turned into a nightmare as their captain, Sidney Crosby, sustained a serious concussion from a hit to the head. He's yet to return to the ice with his teammates, however, a healthy Crosby will only strengthen the intensity and bad blood between these two teams. The highlight reel skill, hard muscle and toughness on display between these clubs each time they meet deserved a television show, and though HBO's coverage of the rivalry lasted just over a month, it will continue to dazzle fans of the sport for years to come.

2. Vancouver Canucks vs Chicago Blackhawks

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    It was a celebration that would have been fitting for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. As Alex Burrows gloved a clearing attempt down, and threw it in front of him, an entire province held it's breath. The rolling puck placed itself perfectly into the slot and the Canucks' winger stepped into it. What happened after he shot the puck was an example of just how strong a rivalry can become. Fans screamed, players poured off the bench embracing, and a province collectively took a deep sigh of relief. The Blackhawks, tired and dejected, congratulated their goaltender on a performance to remember.

    Down 3-0 in the series, the defending Stanley Cup Champions weren't supposed to be in a Game 7. Heck, they weren't even supposed to be in the playoffs. A regulation loss for the Dallas Stars at the hands of the Minnesota Wild ensured their ticket to the post season, and they gave it their all. In what was easily the most thrilling game of the playoffs, the ending had all the trimmings and dramatic punch that a rivalry of this magnitude deserved. But for Vancouver, it was a long road to get to their moment of jubilation.

    In the 2008/09 season, the Canucks and Hawks squared off for the first time, with little history to draw upon between their squads. Vancouver came out strong, and had their moments of brilliance but it was Chicago who largely dominated the series. With young stars, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and the dynamic Patrick Sharp leading the charge, the Hawks were too fast and too deep for the Canucks to keep pace with. Fresh off a sweep of St Louis, the boys in blue were out gunned and dropped the series in six.

    The following year, the teams met again in the playoffs. This time, there was a back drop to provide the series with some colour. There was a renowned crease crasher to complain about in Vancouver by the name of Dustin Byfuglien, and a host of talented role players to cause trouble. With names like Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Adam Burish and Marian Hossa lacing up for the run, the Hawks brought a team that boasted perhaps the deepest roster seen in the league in a very long time. Their young goaltender, Antti Niemi, provided a more agile upgrade to Khabibulin from the previous year. Still, while the Canucks had their share of firepower with the Sedin twins and Kesler providing offense, they found themselves yet again over powered by the Hawks unrelenting waves of pressure. A failing penalty kill and injured defensemen only added to their woes, and once again the Hawks drove up Luongo's stats and prevailed in six games en route to the Stanley Cup. Vancouver was once again left in heart break, and an arch-nemesis was born.

    The well documented cap woes Chicago had in the off season meant a large amount of supporting players had to leave Chicago, making a recovery from their cup hangover slow and difficult. However, the 2010/11 season saw a third consecutive matchup between these teams that finally produced a different outcome for the Canucks. While the scare of letting a mammoth lead slide away in brutal fashion didn't help, the resolve of the team and fanbase doubled after Burrows found net midway through the first overtime. This was a game that saw spectacular goaltending, dominant play, a penalty shot, an overtime power play, a dog pile, and had jobs on the line. To say it was a must win for Vancouver would be an unjust summary.

    With the result a footnote in history now, the focus shifts to the future. As newly acquired enforcer, Dan Carcillo, grinned in a press conference and listed a few Canuck' players he was looking to track down on the ice, the hatred and bitter rivalry these clubs have developed came back to the surface. With the 2011/12 season looming a month away, it's time to look to ahead, and start circling dates on the calender. It's going to get rough out there.

1. Montreal Canadiens vs Boston Bruins

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    If you're going to talk rivalries in sports, the historic one shared between the Bruins and Canadiens has to be one of the first that comes to mind. These two original six teams have battled each other through decades of hockey, with some of the most thrilling games in the history of the sport happening between them. Some of the best players to play the sport, like Guy Lafleur, Maurice Richard, and Bobby Orr, all fought and bled under Montreal and Boston colors, as each meeting between these teams built upon the hatred that is still felt today when they meet. From staple moments in the league's history, to violent attacks and on ice brawls, this rivalry has got it all.  

    This year, the regular season provided several dramatic moments between these clubs, with the after effects still lingering on into the off season. Recently, the police finished an investigation into Zdeno Chara's hit on Montreal forward Max Pacioretty that left him prone on the ice, and badly injured. Montreal lawyers are attempting to mount a case against the hulking defenseman, accusing him of assault among other charges. While the bizarre incident in question was undeniably ugly and dangerous, is legal action appropriate for a hockey play that wasn't overly malicious or illegal? This is just one of the many treats that this rivalry holds. While law suits crowd the newspaper headlines at the moment, it was only a few short months ago that the Bruins and the Canadiens went to war in the post season for the 33rd time in their team's histories. The official tally between them stands at 24-9 in favor of Montreal, however, the past two meetings have seen the Bruins emerge victorious. Their first round series went to 7 games, before forward Nathan Horton found the back of the net in over time to send the Canadiens packing.

    The regular season didn't lack drama though, as two of team's six contests turned out to be highly spirited affairs. On February 9th, a contest between the Bruins and Canadiens resulted in over 180 penalty minutes, several brawls, a goalie fight and a combined goal total of 14. Then, almost a month later came the infamous hit by Chara that sent Montreal into a crazed frenzy, out for retribution and payback. Some of the older fans of the sport will recall that this is not the worst on ice incident between these two teams though. In 1955, Maurice Richard was high sticked by a former teammate, Hal Laycoe, during a game. Richard waited for the referee to hault play, before promptly going over to Laycoe and swinging his stick into his head. The resulting brawl involved more altercations, and an unconscious linesman thanks to two heavy punches that Richard landed on the referee. The aftermath of this incident resulted in a 31 game suspension for Richard.

    The fact that the Canadiens and Bruins were moved into the Northeast Division together after the NHL's realignment between 1998-2001, changed the rivalry again. Both teams now directly compete with each other for top spot in their division. With the teams histories, 3 playoff match ups in 5 years, and a slew of on-ice incidents and events that neither team will soon forget, this is the strongest and most bitter rivalry in hockey of the past 5 years. The 2011/12 season will bring a half dozen more opportunities for these teams to play for pride and carry on the tradition.

Honorable Mention

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    Calgary Flames vs Edmonton Oilers

    With both teams located in the same province, these teams have a rivalry in place that will always exist just off of team pride alone. Being divisional rivals and having a long history of tight checking, hard hitting games is just one of the luxuries of two teams located so close together. However, with both teams in or close to full rebuild mode, their rivalry has taken a step back because of the lack of competitiveness. Keep an eye on this one though, once Edmonton's young guns start developing, and Calgary faces the music and brings in some fresh blood too, this rivalry will once again become an entertaining, spirited affair worth tuning in to.

    New York Rangers vs New Jersey Devils

    Since New Jersey and New York are both a stones throw away from each other, this is yet another rivalry that will exist based off of geography. However, like the battle of Alberta, this fun match up has suffered from the level of play shown by the teams. While the Rangers appear on the edge of bigger and better things, the New Jersey Devils now have a lot of question marks on their team to look at. A nasty playoff meeting, or some good competitive regular season games are what this one needs to boost itself back up.

    Boston Bruins vs Philadelphia Flyers  

    Who could forget the shocking upset of the Boston Bruins in 2009/10 at the hands of the Flyers, who did the impossible and overcame a 3-0 deficit to win the series 4-3 in the seventh game. The loss left Bruin's fans in shock, without any explanation as to why their team was unable to close the series out in 4 tries. With another meeting looming in this years second round, a compelling rematch looked ready to go. Instead, a lopsided series and rather poor performance by the Flyers marred what had the potential to be a very memorable meeting. With a Boston sweep of Philadelphia now in the books, the exclamation point needed to land this one in the Top 5 unfortunately didn't happen.

    Detroit Red Wings vs Pittsburgh Penguins

    After back to back meetings in the finals between these teams, ending in a Cup victory each was a fantastic start to what looked to be a rivalry in the works. But since the Pens hoisted the cup, there's been little to talk about between these two teams, and their brief playoff history remains a compelling footnote rather than a rivalry, for now.