To dismiss New York Rangers vs. Boston Bruins, an Original Six matchup with roots that go back to 1926, as anything but a rivalry just because they don't reside in the same division is to fail to fully grasp the sheer intensity associated with anything that's New York vs. Boston.
The Rangers and Bruins could be two teams fighting for their Stanley Cup Playoffs lives or trying desperately to avoid the cellar, but to former Rangers goalie Mike Richter, standings and status are moot. Richter recalls his second career road game, an afternoon affair against the Bruins and veteran Rejean Lemelin at the old Boston Garden on Jan. 13, 1990. He faced 37 shots in a 3-2 victory less than 24 hours after a piece of ice hit him in his eye during practice and resulted in a scratched cornea that required him to wear an eye patch for 12 hours.
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Richter grew to embrace the essence of the Boston sports fan, especially in the atmosphere created inside the old Garden. Never mind that the Rangers played in the Patrick Division and the Bruins in the Adams Division. This was old-school hockey with Original Six flavor between two teams represented by fan bases that don't exchange holiday greetings.
"It was just so much fun playing in that Boston Garden," Richter told NHL.com. "That was one of my favorite arenas. Tiny place, crowd's insane, all over you. Those fans are crazy. I just remember the intensity of it. It's a great sports town. You want a rivalry with two organizations like that.
"No matter where they are in the standings, it will always be a rivalry."
The teams have met 10 times in the playoffs since the Rangers entered the NHL in 1926. They hadn't seen each other in the postseason for 40 years until this past spring, when the Bruins eliminated the Rangers from the Eastern Conference Semifinals in five games. In their first meeting this season, the Bruins escaped Madison Square Garden with a 2-1 victory Nov. 19 behind Tuukka Rask's 43 saves. On Friday, the scene shifts to Boston for the 2013 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown (NBC, 1 p.m.), a game powered by a multiplatform marketing initiative of TV and online spots shot in Boston and featuring Richter and Bruins great Cam Neely.
A three-time 50-goal scorer, Neely now serves as president of a team leading the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference months after losing the Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Motivated since Day 1 to erase the pain of allowing two goals in 17 seconds late in Game 6, turning a potential series-tying victory into a crushing loss, the Bruins have their eyes on a shot at redemption.
"It's early in the season, but every two points matters," Neely, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee, told NHL.com. "There's been some data shown that by U.S. Thanksgiving, you need to be in the playoff picture or else it gets very difficult to get into the playoff picture. That's something we focus on as an organization, so a good start to the season certainly helps.
"They know what it takes to get there. We won recently (in 2011). We lost in the Final recently. But our team is hungry and is looking forward to getting back. You get a taste of winning, it's a good taste."
To Richter, the physical play of Boston is an X-factor, and the Bruins' well-rounded game makes them a difficult matchup. The Rangers haven't beaten the Bruins in regulation in their past 10 meetings, dating back to late in the 2011-12 season.
"They seem to be able to play many different styles of game," Richter said. "They have shown they can gut it out with anybody, and the Rangers are starting to show that themselves. It's a tough call. Boston is an experienced, battle-tested team, and the Rangers are going to have their hands full, for sure. But they're coming on strong and playing some of their best hockey now. I expect a pretty intense game, given that the goaltenders are as good as they are and the defense on both sides are top-notch."
It's the goalies that put the Friday afternoon meeting into the marquee matchup category. On one side is Rask, who is 13-6-2 with a 1.89 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage and considered by many the top Vezina Trophy candidate in the early portion of the season. On the other is New York's Henrik Lundqvist, the Vezina winner in 2012 who won gold with Sweden six years earlier.
"I know Tuukka gets a big charge out of playing Lundqvist because of the respect that he has for him and the career that Lundqvist has carved out for himself," Neely said. "That's something Tuukka looks up to."
Richter, whose goaltending helped the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1994, feels Rask is among the NHL's elite.
"I am just so impressed with Rask over the years," Richter said. "He can really play the game. There won't be much yield on either side. It will be an incredible thing for the fans to take in. These guys play and play hard. I think the rivalry will continue to heat up and I'm sure they'll see each other in the playoffs."
Lundqvist and the Rangers have rebounded after a rough start that saw them go 3-6-0 opening the season with nine straight on the road. They take a 13-12-0 record into Boston getting healthier and with an important support system in place -- the emergence of a reliable backup goalie in Cam Talbot.
"They've clawed themselves back in," Richter said. "They're starting to get healthy and Lundqvist is going to be able to get some nice rest. [Talbot] is playing very well. [His record] is 5-1. These are important points. That's crucial for a team. They got 10 important points through Cam, and that's a really good sign."