Last year, for the first time in more then a decade all three of the eastern Canadian NHL teams made the playoffs and it looks like that could just be the start of a three-team rivalry in the new Atlantic Division that actually means something. As was evident from the games this past weekend, the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Senators are developing a healthy dislike for one another and that is exactly what the NHL was hoping for when they realigned the conferences this past offseason. The atmosphere at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Thursday was one of the best Ottawa has seen in years (caused in part by an influx of Habs fans who made the short trip from Montreal). When PK Subban leapt in the air and popped the Canadiens logo on his jersey anyone looking on could tell this game meant a lot for the teams as well as their fans. That level of animosity was only escalated two days later when the Canadiens visited Toronto.
Again Subban was at the center of controversy that culminated in James van Riemsdyk mocking his goal celebration as a little pay back for some perceived disrespect from Subban towards the Leafs bench early in the first period. The tension and animosity was not lost on the players either.
“The crowd is into it a lot more than other games when we play them here, and it’s a fun game to play in,” Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak said after the game. “I think a playoff series would be incredible between our two teams.There is a lot of chirping, guys are trying to hit each other. It’s a pretty intense game always when we play them.”
Leafs goaltender and Montreal native Jonathan Bernier added his take on the growing ‘hate’ between the clubs. “When you play a team a lot in the year, you start hating some guys over there and their reaction after goals and things like that,” Bernier said “Pacioretty had one in their building and I think if you watched the game a couple nights ago against Ottawa with Subban … those are the type of plays that you start hating guys and it makes it fun.”
The hate has always been present in the fan bases, and to see it manifesting itself on the ice is nothing but good news for the NHL. For the first time ever each of the three teams has a young core of players that lead to optimism in their respective cities at the same time. The contention between the teams and cities is developing into something that could become quite special for the league and hopefully we see the rivalries take the next step in May during the first year of the league’s new division based playoff system.