When the NHL realigned and switched up its playoff format ahead of the 2013-14 season, “the format was intended to accentuate (divisional) rivalries,” commissioner Gary Bettman later told The Columbus Dispatch. In the first two rounds of the postseason, teams are seeded within their own divisions, with the exception of a Wild Card team in each division.
The format’s definitely added bad blood, with the Penguins-Capitals and Sharks-Kings rivalries undoubtedly better for the change. That’s largely come at the expense of inter-division matchups, which often turned into legitimate rivalries after heated playoff series.
The Wild Card spot’s injected new life into some inter-divisional rivalries, and quite a few have involved the Sharks and Nashville Predators, who play each other Thursday night.
Nashville’s eliminated the Anaheim Ducks in consecutive postseasons, needing seven and six games, respectively. San Jose, meanwhile, rekindled a rivalry with the St. Louis Blues en route to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2016, over a decade after playing each other three times in a five-year span.
The best one, though, may just be between the Sharks and Predators themselves.
For one, there’s the prior playoff history. San Jose blitzed through Broadway and beat Nashville in five-game series in back-to-back postseasons in 2006 and 2007. Neither series would necessarily be considered a classic, but successive eliminations at the hands of one team builds plenty of resentment, which is always a critical element.
Most importantly though, there’s legitimate recent animosity. The teams played a back-and-forth, seven-game series in the second round in 2016, of course, but it spilled into last season and this season.
In their last three games against one another, the Sharks and Predators combined for a staggering 122 penalty minutes. That’s included three fights, five slashes, and six roughing penalties, as well as two misconducts.
The last matchup alone, on Nov. 1, featured nearly as many combined penalties (14) as shots on goal (15) in the third period. It was both teams’ 12th game of the season.
Not all of the principal characters will return, as Cody McLeod’s now on the other Broadway and Joe Thornton remains on the mend, but the stakes are considerably higher. Nashville can move to within a point of the President’s Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs with a win, while San Jose can move three points clear of home-ice in the first round.
With the Red Wings now playing in the Eastern Conference, the Sharks didn’t otherwise have an in-conference, out-of-division rival. Over the last three seasons, the Predators have started to fill that void, and will continue to as long as the two teams still play meaningful games.
Even if that wasn’t always the league’s plan.