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How NHL's historic Bruins vs. Canadiens rivalry can be revived

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For the first time in what feels like forever, the NHL's greatest rivalry will resume Sunday night when the Boston Bruins host the Montreal Canadiens at TD Garden.

It's the first meeting between these rivals since Feb. 12 of 2020, when a David Pastrnak hat trick lifted the B's to a 4-1 win at the Garden.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced these Original Six clubs to be in separate divisions last season. It was a necessary move because of the situation facing the world, but it didn't help what was already a struggling rivalry.

The sport also has undergone a transformation over the last decade or so. Today's NHL is more fast-paced and reliant on skill and speed. There's much less fighting. These changes have caused the rivalry, at least from a physicality standpoint, to lessen a bit.

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What needs to happen for the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry to come roaring back? Here are a couple things.

Playoffs

The No. 1 thing that can revive this rivalry is a matchup in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The last time these teams met in the postseason was the 2014 Eastern Conference second round, a series the Canadiens won in seven games. It was the last of four playoff series between these teams over a seven-year span, and three of them ended in a Game 7.

  • 2008 Eastern Conference quarterfinals: Canadiens 4-3
  • 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals: Bruins 4-0
  • 2011 Eastern Conference quarterfinals: Bruins 4-3
  • 2014 Eastern Conference second round: Canadiens 4-3

Hockey fans were spoiled, to say the least.

Neither team reached the playoffs in 2015-16, and the Canadiens didn't make it in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Before a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, Montreal was not a true contender in the East from 2015-16 through 2019-20.

 

Unfortunately, the Canadiens are unlikely to return to the playoffs this season. They enter Sunday's game in seventh place in the division with a 4-10-2 record. There's time for Montreal to turn its season around, but the most likely scenario is we go another year without a Bruins-Canadiens postseason showdown.

Villains

When this rivalry was awesome from 2008 through 2015, there were multiple villains on each side.

The main villain on the Canadiens was P.K. Subban, a world-class defenseman who scored a lot of clutch goals against the B's and, in the minds of Bruins supporters, embellished to get penalty calls too often.

He also wasn't afraid to mix it up with the Bruins on occasion. 

The two main Bruins villains were captain Zdeno Chara and left winger Milan Lucic. Montreal fans actually called the police on Chara after the on-ice incident between him and Max Pacioretty in 2011. Chara already received a raucous reaction at the Bell Centre before that play, but the crowd response after that was taken up several levels.

Lucic's power forward-style of play made him a villain for a couple fanbases -- including Buffalo, Vancouver and Toronto. You could throw Montreal in that mix as well.

All three of the aforementioned villains are gone. Chara left the Bruins before last season. Lucic was traded by the Bruins in 2015. Subban was traded by the Canadiens in 2016. Shawn Thornton, who was never afraid to stir things up, left the Bruins after the 2013-14 campaign.

The emergence of new Bruins-Canadiens villains would help fuel this rivalry. Who could play that role from the current rosters?

Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher is one option. He plays a scrappy game, in-your-face game. He's also one of the few Canadiens players still around from when the rivalry with the B's was really good in the early 2010s. Nick Suzuki has emerged as one of the Canadiens' best players with his impressive offensive skill. Josh Anderson enjoys playing a hard-nosed game. Those are two other candidates.

For the Bruins, Brad Marchand easily can play the role of villain, even though he's less of an agitator and more of a world-class scorer these days. Trent Frederic is the perfect candidate given his physical style and willingness to fight. Unfortunately, Frederic is out of the lineup right now due to injury.

Scheduling

The Bruins and Canadiens are set to play four times this season. It should be six (or more), which is what it was not too long ago before the league realigned to two divisions in each conference.

The Bruins' biggest rival in 2021 is the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they will play each other just three times this season, which is absolutely ridiculous. How can two Original Six rivals play three times over 82 games?

 

Instead of playing teams like the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets three times each, take one of those games away and add it to the Bruins-Canadiens tally. 

Not only should the Bruins and Canadiens play more often, these matchups need to be later in the season when the games matter more because of the playoff race. From Jan. 13 to the end of the regular season on April 29, the Bruins and Canadiens play just once on March 21 (in Boston).

There's no reason for three of the four Bruins-Canadiens games to be played before Jan. 13 and have all three Bruins-Blue Jackets matchups from March 5 though April 4.

Late-game matchups also can help fuel the intensity ahead of a potential playoff matchup.