Hawks, Wings meet for final time as division rivals
CHICAGO -- It's not the oldest rivalry in the NHL, but the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks have spent the majority of their storied histories practically joined at the hip.
They've battled as Original Six foes, bloodied each other in Stanley Cup Final series and butted heads as Norris and Central division rivals in the Western Conference. They've both been on top of the hockey world and both have brought up the rear -- sometimes at the same time -- and the two have played the most head-to-head games in League history.
Friday night's matchup at United Center (8:30 p.m. ET) will be the 725th meeting between the Hawks and Wings -- the 364th in the Windy City -- and fans on each side are as passionate as any others in sports. That's what makes this particular game so interesting.
Detroit is moving to the Eastern Conference next season under the League's new realignment plan, which makes Friday the last time the Blackhawks and Red Wings will meet in the regular season as division rivals. They'll still play a home-and-home set each season, but it'll be quite a bit different seeing each other twice a year -- not counting potential meetings in the Stanley Cup Final.
"It's a little different," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, who's been in the rivalry long enough to see it shift from Detroit dominating to Chicago turning the tables of late. "I don't mind the new realignment that the League decided to go with, but the one thing that does [stink] is not playing the Red Wings a number of times. I think the fans will always appreciate the rivalry, and when we do see them it will be a special game … but I like going to Detroit and playing in their building and I like it when they come in here. They're fun games to play."
There's just going to be fewer of them every season now.
Players on both sides have similar feelings about it. On the one hand they'll miss measuring themselves against each other as division rivals. On the other hand, the intensity for those two meetings each season ought to be at a fevered pitch now -- both for fans and players alike.
"We've had a good rivalry with this team for so long," said Red Wings center Darren Helm, who will miss the game Friday night with a lingering back injury but has played in a number of Wings-Hawks games during his six seasons in Detroit. "We match up really well and it's always a fun game. If you're not playing them as much, it might disappear a little bit … but at the same time, it might be even more intense because we don't play as much."
Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who will get the start for Chicago, said he thinks that's exactly what will happen. Familiarity, he said, will likely be replaced by intensity for one home game in each city -- similar to most great college football rivalries, where each team has one chance each year to beat the rival school.
Winner gets to puff out their chests for the next year, while the loser stews about it until they meet again.
"We'll still play them twice a year," Crawford said of the Red Wings. "I think it will still be big and maybe even bigger just because we play them twice. It's a huge rivalry and the fans enjoy it."
Blackhawks center Dave Bolland agreed with Crawford. Bolland (foot injury) will miss the fourth and final game against Detroit in the regular season Friday night, but he's also looking forward to that first home-and-home series next season.
"I think it'll grow even more now that we only get to play them twice," Bolland said. "We're only going to get two hits at it, so I think they'll be hard-nosed games knowing that we'll only get to play them twice."
Yet that will mean less opportunity for fans to revel in the atmosphere.
Detroiters will still chide friends who are Blackhawks fans about which team has more Stanley Cup championships (11 for the Red Wings) and Chicagoans will still fill United Center with their favorite slogan about Detroit … but will it be the same?
Either way, players and coaches on both sides see Detroit's move to the East as one that needed to happen.
"That's a tough thing about it, but I think the new divisions and scheduling make sense," Crawford said. "Detroit changes time zones every time they fly [West], so it just makes sense for them. I know the fans love our games, but it's something that had to change, I think."
That doesn't mean, however, players won't miss facing each other as much. They will, just as fans will miss watching it, often in the company of their Midwestern brethren.
"It's always a great rivalry and it's always fun playing against [Pavel Datsyuk], [Henrik Zetterberg], [Niklas Kronwall] and all those guys who are really good players," Bolland said, breaking into a semi-sarcastic smile. "Now [we'll] only see 'em twice, I guess, when they move over, so … I'll be a little heartbroken."
The Red Wings and their fans will be the ones upset if Detroit fails to make the playoffs for a 22nd straight season. The Red Wings are teetering on the brink, coming into Friday in eighth place, two points ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes in ninth.
After losing a home game Thursday night in a shootout to the San Jose Sharks, the Red Wings can feel the postseason streak starting to slip with eight games left in the regular season. Detroit also hasn't forgotten the 7-1 shellacking it took against Chicago on March 31 at Joe Louis Arena.
"You never forget something like that," Red Wings rookie defenseman Brendan Smith said. "That was just a frustrating game on our part … a lot of mental errors. The biggest thing for us [is] to come back and try to redeem ourselves."
They also wouldn't mind getting that eighth seed for the playoffs and matching up with the top-seeded Blackhawks in the first round.
"It's very possible," Smith said. "It'd be a lot of fun. I think everybody in the hockey world would love that. It'd be a lot of fun for us, the fans and everybody. We just have to focus on buckling down here and getting the two points every night."