When the League selected the teams for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, hockey fans were treated to the promise not only of another memorable outdoor game before a packed New Year's Day crowd, but what is widely regarded as the top rivalry in the sport at the present time -- the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
Of course, a lot of the hype centers around the head-to-head rivalry between the game's biggest superstars, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals. But when fans crowd into Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011, they'll also be watching two of the League's elite teams over the past several years.
Washington has finished atop the Southeast Division in three-straight seasons, winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2009-10, while Pittsburgh went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, losing to the Red Wings in the first instance but winning the franchise's third championship in the rematch.
The Penguins and Capitals met in a thrilling, seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2009, with dueling hat tricks by Crosby and Ovechkin in Game 2. The Capitals won that night, but the Penguins captured the series with a decisive Game 7 win in Washington. Each of the previous two games had been decided in overtime, with the road team prevailing.
While playing at Heinz Field in the Winter Classic may end up as the highlight of Pittsburgh's regular season, the Penguins are also opening up the brand-new Consol Energy Center and will do it in style Thursday night against another team they've had a pretty good rivalry with over the years, the Philadelphia Flyers. The battle of Pennsylvania gets waged six times each season between these Atlantic Division foes, and the Flyers were also a victim of the Penguins' run to the Cup in 2009, getting ousted in six games in the first round.
We'd be remiss by not mentioning the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, who last season also usurped the Red Wings as the Western Conference's best. Detroit didn't win four titles of its own in an 11-year span by accepting the role of second fiddle to anyone, however, and the six meetings this season between these Central Division rivals figure to be more intense than ever. Fans don't have to wait long for the first one -- it takes place Saturday night at the United Center, which also happens to be the Blackhawks' home opener.
The past year has done much to increase the rivalry between the Flyers and the Boston Bruins. They met in the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park, with the Bruins claiming a thrilling, 2-1 overtime win. Four months later, it looked like the Bruins were on their way to embarrassing the Flyers when they took a 3-0 series lead in the second round of the playoffs. The Flyers not only erased that deficit, they came back from 3-0 down in the decisive Game 7 and made the Bruins just the third team in NHL history to lose a best-of-seven series in such a fashion. The clubs meet for the first of four times this season Dec. 1 in Philadelphia.
A couple seasons ago, "rivalry" was a word loosely used to describe the games played between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. Technically they shared the state of California, but the Sharks owned all the success when it came to the standings. But the Kings got back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2010 led by a strong young nucleus, and this season they expect to give the Sharks a greater challenge for Pacific Division supremacy. San Jose hosts the first of six meetings this season on Nov. 15 at the Shark Tank.
These are just some of the rivalries taking shape for 2010-11 -- for additional coverage, check out the EA Sports NHL 11 Season Preview show here on NHL.com.