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Rivalries will heat up 'second-half' races

Tuesday, 01.27.2009 / 5:03 PM / Midseason Report

By John McGourty - Staff Writer

Perhaps November brings out the worst in rivals Guy Carbonneau and Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien. The current and former Montreal Canadiens coaches seem to get along the rest of the time, despite their annual competition for first place in the Northeast Division.

Julien got into a shouting match with Carbonneau and Montreal assistant coach Kirk Muller in a November 2007 game after Boston's Mark Stuart beat up Andrei Kostitsyn in a 7-4 Montreal victory at the Bell Centre. Julien was pretty steamed at Carbonneau last Nov. 22 when Montreal's Georges Laraque shadowed Milan Lucic throughout Boston's 3-2 shootout victory in Montreal. Laraque was intimidating Lucic because he had beaten up Montreal's Mike Komisarek during a 6-1 victory nine days earlier in Boston.

The two coaches got along fine Sunday during the 57th annual NHL All-Star Game in Montreal when Carbonneau served as Julien's assistant coach on the Eastern Conference squad. They were asked if they could put their "friendship" aside to continue the rivalry this season.

"I don't know if it's a matter of putting friendships aside," Julien said. "It's a matter of, 'Let's get back to doing our jobs here.' It's been a great weekend. I'm sure Guy will probably hopefully say the same thing. But it's been a great weekend."

The teams meet again Sunday in Montreal and in Boston on April 9. Boston has won three of the four matches to date, two by shootout in Montreal. Boston has outscored Montreal, 15-8. But Boston has sustained a recent rash of injuries while the Canadiens are emerging from an injury-filled first half. It could get close.

"We've had a lot of fun chatting together, and again, putting our guards down and making sure that this weekend was one that we could enjoy," said Julien. "There's no doubt we're back here Sunday, the rivalry's back on."

"Same thing," Carbonneau said. "When I was a player, I hated to lose. I hated everybody that played against me. I'm the same thing as a coach. But once the game is over, I'm able to talk to the people. And same thing; we had a great weekend. It was fun talking with Claude the last three days, but tomorrow is business. I've got to make sure that my club is ready, and he's got to do the same thing."

Although most clubs have played 47 games of the 82-game schedule, most people around the NHL see the time after the All-Star Game as the "second half" of the season.

The Canadiens trail the Bruins by 13 points in their bid to repeat as Northeast champs. Their first-round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago was bitterly fought, with Montreal winning in seven games.

That was the 23rd time in 30 Stanley Cup series that Montreal has prevailed. The rivalry goes back to 1924, when Boston joined the NHL. The Canadiens are 331-260-103 in 697 regular-season games.

The Boston-Montreal rivalry isn't the only one to watch as the season progresses. The Calgary Flames lead the second-place Edmonton Oilers by nine points. The Oilers have won two of their three "Battle of Alberta" meetings with Calgary this season and can improve their playoff chances by winning in Edmonton on Feb. 21 and in the home-and-home series at the end of the season, April 10 and 11.

There has never been any lacking for high-level emotions in the Edmonton-Calgary rivalry, whether you're talking about the ferocious battles between centers Joel Otto and Mark Messier or Oilers coach Craig MacTavish ripping the tongue off Calgary's Harvey The Hound.

What's more, the Oilers and Vancouver Canucks are tied with 51 points, the same as the Anaheim Ducks, in the battle for the final three Western Conference playoff spots. Those teams figure to tune up their rivalries in games remaining.

Back over in the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils led the Atlantic Division by one point over the New York Rangers at the All-Star break. If two teams playing 10 miles apart, representing different states, isn't enough to guarantee a rivalry, the Rangers feature former Devils star Scott Gomez at center while the Devils have former Devil-Ranger-Thrasher Bobby Holik back at center and Brendan Shanahan, a Ranger last year, skating a wing.

The Rangers and Devils have split the four games played to date, each winning in the other's building. They have two games remaining this year, Feb. 9 in Newark and March 30 at Madison Square Garden, and those games will be important because the Philadelphia Flyers are only one point behind the Rangers.

Speaking of the Flyers, they're nine points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins but that won't diminish the intensity of their rivalry. The Penguins are one point out of a playoff spot and have the talent to make up ground. Pittsburgh fans are waiting for the return of their power-play specialist, defenseman Sergei Gonchar.

Gonchar has missed the entire season following shoulder surgery but he should be returning in early February. The midseason break also allowed captain Sidney Crosby to rest his ailing knee.

A regional rivalry figuring to go ember-hot is Carolina Hurricanes-Florida Panthers, with the victor taking second place in the Southeast Division.

The Washington Capitals lead the division with 63 points, 12 points ahead of Carolina, which is a point up on Florida, bidding for its first playoff spot in eight seasons.

The Capitals have been playing well for a couple of months and feature the NHL's second-best home record. They look strong for the rest of the season. Carolina has been a steady .500 team in recent months, as reflected in its 12-12-3 record since Nov. 24, a 12-10-1 home record, 11-10-4 road record and 5-5 record going into the break.

Florida, though, is rallying for rookie coach Peter DeBoer, going 14-6-7 since Nov. 24, and going into the break on a 5-2-3 run. Carolina won the Southeast Division the year it was created, 1998-99, by eight points over Florida, Stanley Cup Finalists three years earlier, but the teams have never had a race for a playoff spot. This year could inject new passion into the division rivalry.

There will also be a couple of interesting non-division rivalries to watch, including San Jose-Calgary and Washington-Pittsburgh. The Capitals' young star, Alexander Semin, stoked the fire earlier this season.

"We've had a lot of fun chatting together, and again, putting our guards down and making sure that this weekend was one that we could enjoy. There's no doubt we're back here Sunday, the rivalry's back on."
-- Claude Julien, on having Guy Carbonneau as assistant coach during the 2009 NHL All-Star Game

"What's so special about (Crosby)? I don't see anything special there," Semin said in an interview with "Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago ... (Kane) is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb."

Crosby, as is his style, refused to join the fray, but Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Washington's Alex Ovechkin have banged each other hard this season. Some say it's a continuation of a scrap between Ovechkin and Malkin's agent. Ovechkin denies the incident, which was widely reported in Russia.

Washington won both games played in Pittsburgh this season and hosts the Penguins twice in their building, on Feb. 22 and again on March 8.

It's been six seasons since the San Jose Sharks canned General Manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter during the 2002-03 season. Sutter landed almost immediately on his feet in Calgary, taking over as coach-GM and then relinquishing the coaching duties. Lombardi was hired as general manager of the Los Angeles Kings in 2006. The Kings trail the Sharks by 28 points in the Pacific Division and have only a longshot chance at a playoff spot, but the Kings are stockpiling young talent and will be a threat soon.

Meanwhile, Sutter would love an opportunity to put the Sharks, and their first-year coach, Todd McLellan, out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs once the postseason begins. The teams split the two games in San Jose earlier this season and Calgary won at home. The Sharks can even the season series with a victory March 30 in Calgary.
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