Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Ten more long-lost playoff rivalries fans need back in their lives

It only took three decades, but the hockey gods finally delivered.

For the first since 1991, hockey fans have been treated to a Battle of Alberta. And it goes without saying that it’s been amazing, with a ton of goals, lots of bad blood, and Connor McDavid doing things that would have made 1987-era Wayne Gretzky go “come on dude, go easy on them.” It’s been fantastic, just like we all knew it would be.

It’s also the third time in the last two years that the playoffs have served up a long-awaited rivalry matchup. Last season we finally got the first-ever Battle of Florida, and it was so much fun that we immediately greenlit a sequel for this year, which was probably a mistake. We also got the first meeting between the Habs and Leafs since the 1970s, and I haven’t finished watching that one yet so no spoilers, please.

It all got me thinking about other rivalry matchups that we haven’t seen in a while, or maybe even ever, which seemed like a worthy topic for a ranking. I’ll define “a while” as within the last 10 years, and I’ll rank each matchup based on an objective set of criteria known as “I’m making this up as I go along.”

I’ll try to hit as many teams as I can, but there will be a few repeats in here, and unfortunately, a few teams are going to be left out entirely, especially those that have had lots of playoff action over the last decade and covered off most of their possible matchups. If you’re a fan of one of those teams, please be assured that my heart breaks for you. It must be so difficult to cheer for a team that wins in the playoffs. Couldn’t be me.

If I’d done this list a year ago, the Battle of Alberta would have been an easy No. 1. Since the hockey gods are obviously feeling generous these days, maybe we can inspire them with a few more ideas for next year. Here we go …

10. Blackhawks vs. Canucks

Total matchups: Five.

Last playoff chapter: 2011

The rivalry in one sentence: Two old guys at the bar reminiscing about their glory days, which sounds sad until you realize that their glory days were pretty damn glorious.

I went back and forth on whether to include this one. It kind of came out of nowhere a decade ago, as two teams with little history ended up crossing paths in the playoffs three years in a row and briefly became the best rivalry in the league. Those teams were stacked with talent, pretty evenly matched, and hated each other. No really, those were some nasty series, with the animosity spilling over to the regular season. When hockey fans are debating the merits of hair-pulling, you know you’ve got a rivalry.

The 2011 meeting was a fitting final chapter, with the best Canucks team ever looking to avenge losses in each of the previous two years. Vancouver went up 3-0 in the series, let the Hawks come all the way back to force a Game 7, and then finally slayed the dragon in overtime. Having the winner scored by one of the rivalry’s central villains was a nice touch.

Would a reboot all these years later work? I’m not sure it would, with almost all the key characters long gone and both teams doing quasi-rebuilds. Still, I’m going to include it, if only because it wouldn’t take much for a lot of those bad feelings between the fan bases to come flooding back.

9. Coyotes vs. Jets

Total matchups: None.

Last playoff chapter: Never.

The rivalry in one sentence: Spiderman pointing meme, except it’s two guys in Jets jerseys.

OK, I admit that it’s weird to have a “rivalry” between two teams that have never met in the playoffs, aren’t anywhere near each other geographically, and have barely even had any memorable moments on the ice.

Still … you’d want to see this, right? The new Jets facing the old Jets would feel kind of poignant, at least for Winnipeg fans. You can imagine the home games turning into a battle of the white outs, especially if we wait until the Coyotes are back in a real arena. The Winnipeg fans would win that side of it, obviously, but Arizona fans could fire back by hanging Teemu Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk banners in their arena, just to be jerks. This one has potential, is all that I’m saying.

8. Leafs vs. Sabres

Total matchups: One

Last playoff chapter: 1999

The rivalry in one sentence: One playoff matchup in over 50 years, meaning the rest of you don’t realize how insane this would get.

Yes, I double-checked — these teams have somehow only met once in history, back in the 1999 conference final. The Sabres won that one, setting up a meeting with the Stars in the final that … well, you know.

So why have this matchup on the list, when history says it’s barely even a rivalry? Because it would be amazing, that’s why. Regular-season meetings between these two teams are always fun, even when one or both teams are bad. Hell, they served up what might be the only memorable preseason game in NHL history. When Phil Kessel is out here bloodying dudes, it’s a rivalry.

Sabres fans love beating the Leafs, especially when they can send invading Toronto fans off for a sad QEW ride home. Give a young, up-and-coming Sabres team a playoff matchup against a Leafs team that can’t win in the playoffs, and you’d have the perfect recipe for a bandwagon underdog. Trust me, this one is going to happen eventually and when it does, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.

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