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Three player rivalries that rocked the house

by John McGourty
Rivalries are a big part of what makes the NHL exciting. Always have, still do, always will. Whether you're talking rivalries between teams or rivalries between players, they've always existed and they add to the passion of the fans and players alike.

Sometimes, rivalries result from geographical proximity and sometimes from repeated Stanley Cup meetings. The Canadiens have defeated the Bruins in 23 of 30 Stanley Cup Playoff series, but they're 8-7 against Toronto; 12-5 against Chicago; 7-7 against the Rangers and 5-7 against Detroit. Edmonton has taken four of five playoff series from Calgary. Colorado and Detroit are 3-3 since 1996.

But what of player rivalries? They've been around since hockey began. Ching Johnson vs. Sprague Cleghorn, Bill Cook vs. Howie Morenz, Teeder Kennedy vs. Elmer Lach, Bobby Hull vs. Bugsy Watson, Clark Gillies vs. Terry O'Reilly, Joel Otto vs. Mark Messier. Whether the issue is skill versus skill or personal animosities, rivalries add spice to the NHL.

Between the second and third periods of Sunday's NHL on NBC game between the Flyers and Rangers at Madison Square Garden (12:30 p.m. ET), NBC analyst Mike Milbury will unveil his three favorite personal grudge matches.

For our part, examines three of the greatest rivalries in modern NHL history.

* Gordie Howe, for many years the NHL's all-time leading scorer, versus Maurice "Rocket" Richard, for whom the NHL's goal-scoring champion's trophy is named.

* Prolific goal scorer Mike Bossy, who led the New York Islanders to four Stanley Cups, versus Wayne Gretzky, the man who supplanted Howe as the NHL's leading scorer

* New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens and Philadelphia Flyers center Eric Lindros, whose head-to-head battles dominated the Eastern Conference for a decade.

Gretzky vs. Bossy

Mike Bossy was one of the most prolific Stanley Cup Playoff scorers in NHL history. Philadelphia's Reggie Leach set the record of 19 playoff goals in one season in 1976. Minnesota's Steve Payne and Bossy had 17 in 1981. Bossy then had 17 goals in the playoffs in 1982 and 1983. That's 51 playoff goals over three-consecutive seasons, en route to meeting "The Great One" in the 1983 Stanley Cup Final.

Bossy is also in the record book for scoring nine goals in one series, against the Boston Bruins in the 1983 Wales Conference Final. Only one player had ever scored more. He had seven goals in the 1982 Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks. For his career, Bossy scored 85 goals and 75 assists in 129 playoff games, a 1.24 points-per-game pace at the game's toughest level.

Wayne Gretzky is the NHL's all-time scoring leader with 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points. He is also the most prolific scorer in Stanley Cup history with 122 goals and 260 assists. Gretzky's 31 assists in 1988 are the record and his 14 assists in the 1985 series against the Blackhawks tied a record. He also set a Stanley Cup Final Playoff record with 10 assists against the Bruins in 1988. He set a one-game record, since tied, with six assists against the Los Angeles Kings in 1987 against the Kings.

Bossy helped lead the New York Islanders to four-straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83. Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers' teammates lost the 1983 Stanley Cup Final to the Islanders. It was a different story the next season when Gretzky led the Oilers over the Islanders for the first of the team's five Stanley Cups in seven years.

Gretzky played in the West and Bossy in the East and their teams met only 25 times, but their two-straight Stanley Cup Finals were legendary, bitter contests between two of the NHL's greatest dynasties and the stars shone. The numbers they posted and the outcomes of the contests show that neither man gave in to the other.

Bossy's team won nine of the regular-season meetings, Gretzky's team won eight and they tied eight times. Gretzky had 18 goals and 36 assists for 54 points while Bossy had 23 goals and 16 assists for 39 points. In 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games, Gretzky had eight goals and 13 assists for 21 points and the Oilers won six games. Bossy had six goals and 12 assists for 18 points and eight wins.

Verdict: Draw

Scott Stevens vs. Eric Lindros

Lindros and Stevens played different positions, so a numbers comparison would be silly. The verdict has to be based on which player's team got the best of the meetings.

These were two of the hardest men who ever played in the NHL. Stevens possessed tremendous offensive talent from the blue line when he broke in with the Washington Capitals in 1982. He had 21 goals and 44 assists for 65 points in 1984-85 and remained an offensive force through his eight years in Washington, one with the St. Louis Blues and three with the New Jersey Devils.

Before the 1994-95 season, coach Jacques Lemaire asked Stevens to take on a focused defensive role and his output dropped to 2 goals and 20 assists. The tactic worked, the Devils won the 1995 Stanley Cup, the first in their history. He was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner when they won again in 2000 and he led them to another Stanley Cup in 2003.

Lindros was one of the most highly touted rookies ever to enter the NHL. The Quebec Nordiques traded his rights to the Philadelphia Flyers for five players, including Peter Forsberg, and two first-round draft picks. He didn't disappoint, making the NHL All-Rookie Team. He would go on to score 372 goals and 493 assists in 760 NHL games. He also had 24 goals and 33 assists for 57 points in 53 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Both players were highly emotional, brutal players early in their careers and matured into solid citizens. It was so easy to lure Stevens into fights and penalties early in his career that rivals labeled him "Psycho." Rival coach Roger Neilson once described Lindros's game as "a major on every shift."

With Stevens in New Jersey and Lindros in Philadelphia, their fates were sealed early on. They fought in their first preseason game, in 1992, and in almost every other time they met that year. The fights and hard checks were a top feature of Atlantic Division games throughout their careers, culminating in a crushing Stevens' check on Lindros in the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Lindros was never the same player after that.

The Devils clearly got the best of the Flyers during the Stevens-Lindros rivalry. The Devils won 26 of 37 regular-season meetings and six of eight Stanley Cup Playoff games. Stevens had 1 goal and 14 points during regular-season games while Lindros had 15 goals and 19 losses for 34 points. That's nearly a point a game so it's likely that the Devils were simply the better team. The Devils' three Stanley Cups in four trips to the Final dwarfs the Flyers' one Final loss.

Verdict: Stevens

Gordie Howe vs. Maurice "Rocket" Richard

Gordie Howe retired as the NHL's all-time leading scorer with 801 goals and 1,049 assists and 68 goals and 92 assists for 160 points in 157 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He was named to 12 NHL First All-Star Teams and nine NHL Second All-Star Teams. He won six Art Trophies as the NHL's leading scorer and six Hart Trophies as the regular-season MVP.

Howe led the NHL in goals five times and assists three times. He led the Stanley Cup Playoffs in goals three times, twice in assists and six times in scoring. He was, by many accounts, the strongest man in the NHL through the first two-thirds of his 25-year NHL career. Then he played in the WHA for most of the 1970s, returning to the NHL in 1979-80 when the Hartford Whalers were merged into the NHL. Howe's Detroit Red Wings won four Stanley Cups from 1950-55.

Richard led the NHL in goals five times. He never led the league in assists or overall scoring, but was the runner-up for the Art Ross Trophy five times. He was an amazingly driven player with burning eyes who put fear into opposing players with his rugged play. In an earlier time, Richard's response to what he considered dirty play was to strike the opponent in the head with his stick, witness pictures of his altercation in the 1952 Stanley Cup semifinal with goalie "Sugar" Jim Henry in which both men are bleeding freely.

But make no mistake about it. Richard was a great, great player and the Canadiens won eight Stanley Cups during his time with the team, 1942-60. In terms of who was tougher, Howe was much stronger and Richard more quick-tempered. Both were given a wide berth by most opponents.
The Red Wings and Canadiens met four times in the Stanley Cup Final with Detroit winning in 1952, 1954 and 1955. The Canadiens won the matchup in 1956, the first of their five-straight Stanley Cups.

In fairness to Howe and his Red Wings' teammates, GM Jack Adams, made a series of terrible trades that wrecked one of
the best franchises in NHL history. Howe's determined work kept his team competitive midway through the 1960s, but he lacked the supporting cast he needed.

Still, Howe's teams won three of the four Final meetings and Howe would retire as the greatest player in the history of the NHL.


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