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Which rivalry is the game's best?

by Phil Coffey
What’s the best rivalry in the NHL?

Good luck figuring that one out. Rivalries, after all, are blood feuds, so you're never going to get a Leafs fan to admit another matchup trumps the ones involving his team. Or a Canadiens fan, or a Rangers fans or ...

You get the point.

Between the second and third periods of Sunday's NHL Game of the Week on NBC, analyst Mike Milbury will name his top three rivalries. Let's see if they match these three all-timers and the two honorable mentions we've listed.

Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens -- Packed with history and years of Hall of Famers going head-to-head, this rivalry screams hockey and all that makes it a passion for so many.

How intense has this been? Consider that between 1944 and 1978, the clubs met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a dozen times. That will raise a burr under the saddle of any self-respecting player or fan.

There are those who will argue that political and societal rivalries are encompassed here, but what it boils down to is two teams that don't like each other a whole lot.

The rivalry never was more intense than in the 1960s, as the Leafs and Habs won eight of the 10 Cups awarded during the decade, with the 1967 Final between the two white-hot, as the Leafs upset the Canadiens.

In recent years, the Leafs' struggles have cooled the rivalry to a degree, but it continues to smolder and can ignite at any time.

Bruins vs. Canadiens -- This is another blood feud forged in the crucible of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The two went at it again in the first round of last spring's postseason, with the favored Canadiens being pushed to seven games before advancing. The Bruins credit their strong play in the series with helping them get off to a fast start in 2008-09.

The two have played 159 postseason games, more than any other NHL rivalry. During the 1950s, the Habs took the Cup from the Bruins three times. The intensity of the rivalry was forever captured in 1952, when Bruins goalie Jim Henry, sporting a black eye, was photographed shaking hands with Maurice "Rocket" Richard, who has a bandage above his eye.

The rivalry glowed red-hot again in the 1970s as both clubs ranked among the top Cup contenders, icing Hall of Famers like Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Gerry Cheevers, Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden and Jacques Lemaire. In 1971, the defending-champion Bruins were ousted by the Habs thanks in large part to the unbeatable play of Dryden. Boston won the Cup the following season, but the Habs' win broke up a potential dynasty.

The Bruins were star-crossed in the mid-1970s as teams coached by Don Cherry fell to the Canadiens in the 1977 and 1978 Finals. But the most unforgettable moment was in the 1979 semifinals, when the Bruins were called for too many men on the ice in the waning moments of Game 7. The Canadiens tied the game and then won in overtime, a wound that still aches in Boston.

The rivalry was more even in the 1980s and 1990s as the teams gave as good as they got. Boston triumphed in the playoffs in 1988, and the Habs returned the favor in 1989. The Bruins won again in 1990, '91 and '92.

In 1994, the Canadiens were the defending champions but were eliminated in the first round by the Bruins. Montreal also won series in 2002 and '04.

Flyers vs. Rangers -- These two teams have hated one another since the Flyers joined the NHL in 1967, largely because these two cities have a rivalry in every sport, so hockey was a natural extension. A rough-and-tumble rivalry that has seen the buckets dropped countless times, a Rangers-Flyers game rarely is dull or without incident.

There have been 10 playoff meetings that has set the bitter tone for the rivalry, with the Flyers winning six times, including the 1974 series that saw a favored Rangers team ousted as the Flyers went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Rangers returned the favor in 1979 with an upset of the Flyers, advancing to the Cup Final where they fell to the Canadiens.

In the 1980s, the two played in the Patrick Division semifinals five times. The Rangers won in 1982, '83 and '86, while the Flyers were victorious in 1985 and '87. Philadelphia also won postseason series in 1995, a four-game sweep of the defending champs, and 1997, which sent the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final.

Honorable mention

Battle of Alberta -- Provincial pride is on the line every time the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames meet. Forget the teams' records; there is no more intense or bitter rivalry than this one.

How bitter?

The Oilers ousted the Flames in the playoffs in 1983, 1984, 1988 and 1991 on their way to two of their five Stanley Cups. Calgary’s revenge came in 1986 when the Flames triumphed. In 1988, Edmonton returned the favor. The 1991 postseason marked the last meeting between the Oilers and Flames, but that hasn't impacted the nasty, exciting games that have taken place in the regular season.

Colorado vs. Detroit -- This grudge match is one for the ages, although there has been something of a cooling in recent years. But no rivalry produced as much passion and fisticuffs as Wings vs. Avalanche.

From 1996 to 2002, the Avs and Wings met in five playoff series, three times in the Western Conference Finals. In those seven seasons, the teams combined to win five Stanley Cups, so the road to success in the West led out of the Motor City or Mile High City.

Game 6 of the 1996 Western Conference Finals more than set the rivalry afire. Colorado's Claude Lemieux crushed Kris Draper into the boards at the Detroit bench, leaving Draper with a broken jaw and broken nose among other injuries.

The 1997 playoffs was payback time for the Wings. In a fight-filled game, the Wings' Darren McCarty grabbed Lemieux during a line brawl and fired away as Lemieux covered up. Goalies Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy also battled in a memorable center-ice brawl.

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