The Making of an NHL Rivalry

Over the vast and glorious history of the NHL, there have been some great rivalries. Even when there were only six NHL teams, the hatred and contempt players from one team had for their opponents on another team made playoff games the intense battles we fans have come to love. Think about the rivalries in the league that have stood the test of time. Boston versus New York. Well, that particular rivalry goes on in every major sport because the population of those cities have a general dislike for each other. Other intense NHL rivalries like Montreal vs. Toronto and Chicago vs. Detroit have been around just about as long as this wonderful game.

Even after several expansions have increased the number of NHL teams to 30, one thing that has also grown is the list of NHL rivalries. There is another rivalry that is growing right before our eyes. Tampa vs. Detroit. The Lightning vs. the Red Wings. A team with all the deep and rich tradition of any Original 6 team vs. a team that has only been around since the early ’90s. These two teams that are meeting for the second consecutive year in the first round of the NHL playoffs are beginning to show a mutual dislike for each other that is bordering on hate. The main ingredient in any good old-fashioned rivalry.

Ties that Bind

To add to this Atlantic Division competition that is still in the embryonic stage, the additional factor that the current General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning also happens to be one of the greatest players in Detroit Red Wing history – Steve Yzerman. Not only is he the player who has the longest tenure of any captain in Detroit’s storied franchise but he is also the architect of the current Lightning team.

Steve Yzerman selects Nikita Kucherov @ 2011 Draft {Photo by}
Steve Yzerman  {Photo by}

So what does it take to build a rivalry in the NHL these days.  Being in the same division helps. Check. Meeting in the playoffs certainly adds to the fun. Double check. Detroit is making their 25th consecutive playoff appearance. That is longer than the Lightning have actually been an NHL franchise. You can set your calendar to the Red Wings success in making the postseason. Through three conferences, three divisions, doesn’t matter but at the end of the year the Wings will be fighting for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Have been since George Bush was the president. Not him, his father, George H. W. Bush.

The fact that the Wings and Lightning have met in the first round for two consecutive years adds to the fire between these two teams. Last year the opening round saw the series go the full seven games. There were three shutouts – one pitched by Ben Bishop of Tampa and two from Petr Mrazek of Detroit. Both goalies were appearing in their very first playoff games in that series. Nerves, schmerves, these two net minders were ready to help their teams out.

The series a year ago was so close that through the first six games, both teams had scored 15 goals apiece. The final in Game 7 at Amalie Arena in Tampa was 2-0 for the home team for the series win. During the series, there were several memorable events that lay the foundation for the building of a rivalry. In Game 1, Mrazek almost single-handedly stole home ice from Tampa by stopping 44 of the 46 shots the Lightning sent his way. For a rookie playing his first postseason game, that performance was impressive. Would have been impressive for any goalie at any point in his career.

The budding animus began taking shape in Game 2 last year when Brian Boyle and Danny DeKeyser exchanged pleasantries. This altercation led to a dustup between Steven Stamkos and Kyle Quincey which saw Stammer put Quincey in a vise-like headlock that any WWE wrestler would be proud to call his own.

The series went on to have an overtime game, four instances out of the seven games where the road team won and a one game suspension to Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall for the monster hit he laid on Nikita Kucherov in Game 5. The seven game match easily became etched in the memory banks of each team’s fans and when the pairings were set for this year’s playoffs, wouldn’t you know that fate had the Wings vs. Lightning set for round one.

Second Verse, Same as the First

So, these two franchises meet again in the opening round of the playoffs seemingly picking up where they left off a year ago. The rosters for both teams are virtually the same so the revenge factor from Detroit’s perspective is a high priority. From Tampa’s point of view, many of their players have said that the Detroit series last season was the toughest one during their run to the Cup. So everyone needs to buckle up for round two.

After the first two games in this year’s series, the Lightning held serve on their home ice winning the first two games but there were some extra-curricular activity in both games that adds to the intensity of the, dare I say it, rivalry. At the end of Game 1, Henrik Zetterberg took a shot at Ryan Callahan as time expired and glares were given, words exchanged but the teams walked off to their respective locker rooms.

At the end of Game 2, the boys weren’t playing so nice. At the end of the Game 2, things became interesting as the frustration of the 5-2 Lightning victory was unsettling to some on the Red Wings bench and as time was expiring, Brad Richards, yes the only Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Tampa Bay Lightning history who now dons the Red Wing sweater, took a swipe with his stick at Andrej Sustr and that’s when the fun began. Nikita Nesterov took exception to Richards slashing his defensive mate and dropped his gloves and engaged with the former Bolt.

Justin Abdelkader jumped into the fray and began pummeling a prone Lightning player who turned out to be rookie Mike Blunden who was bloodied by his broken visor not to mention a couple of the Abdelkader haymakers. Try saying that fast three times. Callahan had a hold of some Red Wing and said later that he had no idea what was going on and it is comforting to know that his instinct was to grab an opponent.

In Game 3, which was a 2-0 victory by Detroit, there was more fun at the end of that game as some players were pushing and shoving as the undercard to the main event of Abdelkader vs. Boyle. It was clear that the frustration of the Wings victory was enough for Boyle to drop his gloves but Abdelkader was an unwilling combatant. He refused to fight. In his defense, he did ask the referee if he would get in trouble if he fought because his pinkie was taped. The upshot is that Abdelkader didn’t fight which prompted Boyle to do his rendition of the Chicken Dance while glaring at Detroit’s bench.

So, there you are. After 10 playoff games over two seasons, Tampa has won six games to Detroit’s four but only four goals separates these two squads. They are even tied at their apparent disdain for each other. No matter what happens from here on out, there is no denying we are seeing the beginning of another heated rivalry in the NHL. Let’s hope we see more of these two teams playing each other when it counts for years to come.