Milan Lucic has lived many NHL lifetimes when it comes to rivalries.
He was there in Boston, for the most recent apex of the Bruins‘ feud with the Montreal Canadiens. He was there in 2011, when the Bruins sparked a brief but blazing animosity with the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Final. He was there with the Los Angeles Kings in 2016, for a taste of their rivalry with the San Jose Sharks. He went to Edmonton to experience the Battle of Alberta. He went to Calgary to experience the other side of it, including in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The man loves him some rivalries.
“I think they just add to it. The history. The rivalry. All the type of stuff. Everything is just magnified,” said Lucic recently. “Everyone’s just more into it. The fans are just more into it. The emotions are more into it. The media and the storylines are that much more into it. As an athlete it’s something to look forward to.”
If there’s one thing the NHL has consistently known how to market through the years, it’s not stars or highlights or personalities — it’s rivalries. Heck, it even redesigned the playoff format to increase the chances that it will get more rivalry matchups early on in the postseason.
What are the best current rivalries in the NHL? Glad you asked. Here’s my top five, and some tiered levels for the rest of the relevant ones.
The Battle of Alberta is decades old, as chronicled by our own Kristen Shilton here. I didn’t really get to see much of it during the 1980s, the era which set the foundation for the incivility to come.
The NHL had an American television rights deal with SportsChannel, which would only air regular-season games produced by one of their regional sports networks in Chicago, Hartford, the New York area or Philadelphia. Fans in the northeastern United States heard about the Battle of Alberta like wrestling fans would hear about matches in Japan: Reading about Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers vs. the Flames in the late edition of a newspaper was like reading about a five-star match at the Tokyo Dome in a dirt sheet. Unless you were trading tapes, you were out of luck.
Obviously, there are no such issues now, as we’re able to watch this mayhem through all manner and sort of devices. Why is the Battle of Alberta the best rivalry in hockey? Look at these quotes from Edmonton ruffian Zack Kassian and Calgary’s Lucic:
“It’s not only big for the teams, it’s big for the province,” Kassian said.
“People of Alberta have been waiting a long time for this, since 1991,” Lucic said.
The province. Alberta.
This rivalry speaks to one of the fundamental aspects of team sports, the kind of thing you experience in youth leagues and then prep sports: the determination to avoid local shame and embarrassment. It’s a few levels up from “bragging rights.” It’s that feeling of having to see a rival in everyday life, due to proximity, know they’ve gotten one over on you, and knowing that your failure has put your friends and neighbors in similar situations.
In that sense, the Battle of Alberta is like hockey’s Iron Bowl, the storied college football rivalry between Auburn and Alabama. No matter their records, no matter the stakes, the games always mean something significant to those involved. And now that there are stakes — the winner of this series will be eight wins away from the Stanley Cup, the loser goes home — it’s the most meaningful version of that feud.
(For the record: Edmonton is Alabama, with the championship legacy and the legendary names, while Calgary is Auburn, which wins on occasion but happily plunges a thorn in the side of its local rivals.)
I realize some of you probably came to the list hoping for a straight ranking of team vs. team animosity, and that this would be considered a cheat. But ask yourself this: Is there a better rivalry than the Vegas Golden Knights — a team that went from the expansion sweethearts to Team Schadenfreude in the span of four seasons — and the rest of the NHL?
Think of the dance partners the Golden Knights have collected through the years. They have established rivalries with the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals. They have heat with the Winnipeg Jets, the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche. The Buffalo Sabres with the Jack Eichel thing. The Minnesota Wild with the Marc-Andre Fleury thing.
Think of how many fan bases revelled in the misery of the Golden Knights missing the playoffs — it was like the end of “Return of the Jedi,” except they toppled a statue of Peter DeBoer on Coruscant.
So it’s Vegas vs. everyone. Which, knowing the Golden Knights, is probably just fine by them.
One of the great misconceptions about this rivalry is that it was born from the Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby grudge. In fact, these two franchises had heat for a decade before that as division rivals. So it’s still an intense rivalry, still an invasion of Penguins fans in D.C. when Pittsburgh comes to town. But once the Capitals (finally) won their Cup by overcoming the Penguins, the dynamics shifted. It wasn’t Washington fruitlessly trying to overcome their tormentors anymore.
There’s still a ton of juice in this feud — we came dangerously close to these two rivals meeting in the playoffs this postseason. But with the Penguins’ core slowly dissolving, and Ovechkin and Crosby growing older, one wonders if this rivalry will settle back to previous levels after 15 years of superstar accelerant.
These rivalries grow and fade in intensity through the years, but the flame never goes out. Sometimes they meet in the playoffs, and it’s incendiary. Sometimes they go years without doing so. But pair any of them at any time, and you’re going to have a buzz in the building.
For years, the Bruins had the most heat with the Canadiens. Recently, it’s been the Leafs. Same deal for Toronto, although that Canadiens opening-round shocker over the Leafs last season might have reignited some animosity. The obsequious dedication to Original Six Worship can be a bit much, but when you watch these teams renew acquaintances, you can understand why.
Game 1 of their second-round series underscored the problem with the Battle of Florida. There’s heat. There’s hatred. There have been games that were absolutely incendiary.
But it’s lopsided.
The Panthers are chasing the Lightning. They’re not on even footing yet. Florida puts up incredible regular-season numbers; Tampa Bay looks at their two consecutive Stanley Cup rings. Florida takes a run at the throne; the Lightning do their best Mariah Carey talking about Jennifer Lopez impression: “I don’t know her.”
These are old reliables. Some are a bit lopsided at the moment, but there’s always intensity when these teams play — even if their best days are found on YouTube nostalgia clips rather than on the ice currently. (And by that, we mean we hope the Flyers get their act together.)
The troll feud: Hurricanes vs. Canadiens
One of the most unexpected recent feuds was sparked between the most storied franchise in NHL history and the former Hartford Whalers. Please recall that in 2019, the Canadiens signed Carolina star Sebastian Aho to a five-year offer sheet worth more than $42 million. Then-Habs general manager Marc Bergevin said that Aho “wants to come to Montreal. He sees our youngsters coming up in the organization and he wants to be a part of that.”
The offer sheet was seen as a challenge to Canes owner Tom Dundon’s finances, as it was significantly frontloaded. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes matched to retain Aho, with GM Don Waddell saying, “Once again, the Carolina Hurricanes should not be underestimated.”
Fast forward to August 2021, and the Hurricanes played the offer sheet game by signing Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a one-year, $6,100,015 offer sheet. Waddell trolled the Canadiens, saying: “He wants to come to Carolina. He sees the core we’ve built here and he wants to be a part of that.”
The trolling didn’t end there. The 15 at the end of his salary figure was Kotkaniemi’s uniform number. They also gave Kotkaniemi a $20 signing bonus in honor of Aho’s number.
In October 2021, the Hurricanes and Kotkaniemi returned to Montreal and defeated the Canadiens. Immediately after the game, the Hurricanes activated a website called DidTheHabsLose.com. The site featured a banner photo with the word “YES” in bold letters. (To make matters weirder, it was eventually hacked and turned into an anti-Carolina website.)
Will this rivalry keep thriving, or will it just disappear into the ether like so many memes past?
Ready to explode
The Ducks and Kings are both on the way back up, with Anaheim powered by the unique whimsy of Generation Zegras and Los Angeles melding their veterans with a young supporting cast to create a playoff team this season. Hopefully the municipal pride on the line will spark some real hatred between the next wave of Ducks and Kings.
It’s a shame we didn’t get the Avalanche and Wild in the second round for two reasons. First, to have a few more games of Kirill Kaprizov‘s wizardry. Second, because this is a great rivalry that’s ready for another round. The players don’t like each other. The fans really don’t like each other. A playoff series between these two would have had the mounting tension of a well-executed episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
The Rangers and Devils are like a volcano that spewed lava for about 20 years and then suddenly went dormant, around the time when New Jersey developed an allergy to the postseason. The Rangers are a contender. The Devils are … back in the lottery. This rivalry is at its best when both teams are playoff contenders. At the very least, that would mean the percentage of Rangers fans able to buy tickets to Devils home games would decrease slightly.
Finally, it’s the Kraken and the Canucks. This one is going to take some time to percolate, as Seattle takes a more circuitous path to contention than Vegas did as an expansion team. But when Seattle was given its franchise, one of the things the NHL was most excited about was the Pacific Northwest having two “neighboring” teams for an instant rivalry. It’s only a matter of time before hordes of invading British Columbians infiltrate Climate Change Arena.
There are other historic rivalries we’d love to see reignited — the Detroit Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche, for example, which remains the gold standard for hockey hatred in the last 30 years. There are some current rivalries we’d like to see explored a little deeply, like the Dallas Stars and the Nashville Predators.
But the ones we’ve listed here bring the hatred, bring the heat and bring eyes to the NHL like few other things do.
Jersey Foul of the week
As a sidebar to our Carolina vs. Montreal rivalry note above:
— Jagrs beard (@jagrs_beard) May 6, 2022
That’s a Jose Theodore jersey (we assume) that’s been doctored up as a Sebastian Aho jersey, who signed an offer sheet with the Canadiens but never played there. Hang it right next to your Shea Weber Philadelphia Flyers jersey in the back of the closet.
Video of the week
Some bonds are deeper than hockey. 🥺❤️ #StanleyCup
— NHL (@NHL) May 16, 2022
It’s this time of year where I start to think about the players that aren’t playing.
Like those guys that get traded right before a team pops off and wins a Stanley Cup. Karl Alzner comes to mind. He played nine seasons with the Washington Capitals, through nearly all of the playoff heartbreak experienced during the Ovechkin Era. He left in 2017 to sign a free-agent contract with the Montreal Canadiens, which would prove to be disastrous for both parties. The next season, his old friends broke through and won the Cup.
Like those guys who get injured or fall out of favor with their teams. Sean Monahan was both for the Calgary Flames. Monahan had season-ending hip surgery in April. Before that, he had been relegated to fourth-line status when he wasn’t scratched, continuing a downward trend in his production. As late as 2018-19, he was an 82-point player in the midst of a seven-year deal.
His primary linemate that season was Johnny Gaudreau. They were the faces of the franchise. This was the scene after Gaudreau scored the overtime goal that won Game 7 against Jake Oettinger and the Dallas Stars. Monahan had been hanging around the team. He and Gaudreau had this moment after the game, which was acknowledged by Johnny Hockey’s mother.
“I wish he was playing. He’s just the ultimate team guy,” Gaudreau said after the game. “Sucks the way it ended for him this year. He’s such a good friend, such a good teammate, such a good leader.”
A touching moment. Remember the ones that aren’t there.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Ian Cole
Hurricanes defenseman Ian Cole entered Game 1 against the Rangers with 103 career postseason games and one career goal in them. His second could be one of the pivotal moments in the Canes’ run this postseason, an overtime game winner. As coach Rod Brind’Amour eloquently put it: “That’s what’s great about this game. You just don’t know who’s going to be the guy. And now he’s got that moment forever.”
Loser: Mike Smith
Nothing better represents Mike Smith’s tenure as an Oilers goaltender than to go from a Game 7 shutout against the Kings to getting pulled after 6:05 in Game 1 against the Flames after getting smoked for three goals.
Has any player cemented their reputation in a single postseason defeat like Stars goalie Jake Oettinger did with his 64-save performance against the Flames in Game 7? As Stars defenseman John Klingberg said: “I honestly haven’t seen a better performance from a goalie.”
The Athletic published details of the Coyotes’ agreement with Arizona State University this week. While some of the more stunning revelations have been tamped down by reporters like Craig Morgan, most of the hockey world will only remember the “good behavior” clause for owner Alex Meruelo and the team, and the notion that the team can’t put its logo at center ice of its temporary home.
Winner: Lane Lambert
The sense I get about Lambert being hired by the New York Islanders as their new head coach? That it’s about time. While it might seem a little confusing that an associate coach to the fired head coach can be counted on as “a new voice” for the team, he’s been plugging away at the coaching game since 2002. It’s exciting to see him get his shot, away from Barry Trotz’s considerable shadow.
Loser: Peter DeBoer
Someone had to pay for the Golden Knights’ failure this season, and Bill Foley couldn’t fire the injured list. Interesting take here from Sin Bin: “DeBoer’s firing is another example of the front office being impatient, indecisive, and masters of disguise. Twice now, after some adversity, the Golden Knights made the quick decision to find a replacement instead of standing behind their coach.”
Winner: Loving the Byng
Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin was nominated for the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play, and has a chance to make history if he wins it. Only one other defenseman in NHL history has captured consecutive Byngs, as Red Kelly did it in 1952-53 and 1953-54.
On top of that, Slavin genuinely seems to love being honored as a gentleman. “It’s always an honor to be named a finalist for any award. For me, that’s a character award and that’s who I want to be as a person — using my game of hockey to glorify God and how I carry myself on and off the ice.”
Loser: Hating the rule
Cirelli made contact with Bobrovsky’s head in the blue paint. Panthers challenged for goalie interference, but it was still ruled a good goal. pic.twitter.com/kVL3ILjZCL
— Ryan Gilbert (@RGilbertSOP) May 18, 2022
Look, I understand the rule with the whole “Anthony Cirelli was in the white and Bobrovsky was in the blue” thing. (Although I’ll argue that Cirelli’s skate was in the blue as he moved Bob’s stick right as the goal was scored.) But if the spirit of the rule is that a goalie should be allowed to play his position unencumbered, and his head is spun around like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” … what are we even doing here?
From your friends at ESPN