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The NHL’s Most Bitter Rivalry Is On Pause. But It Could Come Back With A Vengeance.

The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens have one of the oldest and most heated rivalries in all of North American professional sports, and no moment typifies the animosity between the teams more than the events of March 13, 1955. Maurice “Rocket” Richard was the best hockey player on the planet then — the epitome of a goal scorer1 — but he was also a bit of a cheap-shot artist. After catching a high stick to the side of the head from Bruins defenseman (and former Canadiens teammate) Hal Laycoe, Richard went berserk. The Rocket used his stick as though it were a battle axe and hacked at Laycoe, hitting the defenseman in the ear and on the shoulder. He swung with such force that he shattered his stick in the middle. Most players didn’t wear helmets back then, and Laycoe was lucky the Rocket missed his skull.


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A referee named Cliff Thompson attempted to put an end to the violence, only to catch fists from a rabid Richard.2 Boston police tried to arrest Richard after the game, but his teammates prevented them from entering the Montreal dressing room. NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell eventually suspended Richard for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, a decision that set off riots in Montreal.

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Richard’s violence that night was extreme, but the melee wasn’t the first in the history of the rivalry, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. The two teams have played the most regular season games,3 playoff games and playoff series of any rivalry in league history, so it’s only natural that the Bruins and Canadiens absolutely, one-hundred percent hate each other’s guts. But thanks to temporary divisional realignment made necessary in order to limit travel during the pandemic,4 the Bruins and Canadiens won’t square off against one another this year — at least not until the playoffs. Not seeing the two rivals play at all in the regular season is one of the weirdest circumstances of this strange NHL season, though that could make for an even weirder and more contentious installment of the rivalry down the line.

Hockey’s interrupted rivalries

Most all-time meetings between pairs of teams who aren’t scheduled to face each other in the 2021 NHL season

Meetings
Team Rival First Last All-Time Games*
Boston Bruins Montreal Canadiens 1924-25 2019-20 927
Detroit Red Wings Toronto Maple Leafs 1926-27 2019-20 789
Boston Bruins Toronto Maple Leafs 1924-25 2019-20 760
Montreal Canadiens New York Rangers 1926-27 2019-20 705
Chicago Blackhawks Toronto Maple Leafs 1926-27 2019-20 691
Detroit Red Wings Montreal Canadiens 1926-27 2019-20 659
New York Rangers Toronto Maple Leafs 1926-27 2019-20 652
Chicago Blackhawks Montreal Canadiens 1926-27 2019-20 649
Boston Bruins Detroit Red Wings 1926-27 2019-20 645
Boston Bruins Chicago Blackhawks 1926-27 2019-20 620
Detroit Red Wings New York Rangers 1926-27 2019-20 619
Chicago Blackhawks New York Rangers 1926-27 2019-20 616
Chicago Blackhawks St. Louis Blues 1967-68 2019-20 382
Dallas Stars St. Louis Blues 1967-68 2019-20 377
Detroit Red Wings St. Louis Blues 1967-68 2019-20 326

*Includes playoffs.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

As you might expect from a team with a record 24 Stanley Cups5 to their name, the Canadiens have fared much better than the Bruins over the years — especially in the playoffs. The Habs have won 25 of the 34 playoff series contested between the two teams, including all seven (!!!) Stanley Cup Final matchups. The Bruins aren’t scrubs — they have the third-best regular season points percentage in league history,6 behind the Philadelphia Flyers and, you guessed it, the Canadiens — but they mostly have not been able to hang with their rivals from the north, either.

All of that history notwithstanding, the rivalry has also kind of petered out a bit in the past decade. The two teams last met in the playoffs in 2013-14, and there hasn’t been any real beef since 2011 — when then-Bruins captain Zdeno Chára drove Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty’s head into a pylon while finishing a check that was perhaps not as dirty as Richard’s hatchet job … but was definitely not not dirty. Pacioretty suffered a cracked vertebrae and a severe concussion, and Montreal police launched a criminal investigation. (Chára, like Richard before him, was not arrested.)

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It’s actually a bit miraculous that the rivalry is as intense as it is given the fact that the two teams have rarely ever been great at the same time. Both teams were at or around the peak of the league for most of the 1970s, some of the 1980s and the early 1990s, but otherwise they’ve seldom synced up their cycles of success to coincide with one another. That’s been especially true in the 21st century, when one franchise’s rise has seen the other’s fall, and vice-versa.

And while the Canadiens claim much of the historic dominance, the Bruins have been by far the better team for the past decade. They’ve played in three Stanley Cup Final series, winning one and coming within three victories of winning all three. In that same stretch, the Canadiens have only won four playoff series total, and haven’t advanced beyond the Eastern Conference finals. In a sign that the tides in the rivalry had shifted, the Habs even lost a Game 7 to the Bruins in 2011, as Boston marched to its first Stanley Cup triumph in four decades.

But both teams are looking good so far to start the 2021 season. Boston currently leads the East division while Montreal is close behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the North. In our Elo ratings, the Bruins rank second and Montreal is 12th, but they are closer in terms of Cup odds — the Bruins are second at 13 percent, and the Habs are 10th at 4 percent. Either way, it’s been some of the best hockey both teams have simultaneously played this century.


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Now, the aforementioned divisional realignment means the two teams won’t meet during the regular season for the first time in the nearly 100-year history of the rivalry. At the same time, a playoff meeting or — more specifically and dramatically — a Stanley Cup meeting is not out of the question. That’s right: There’s a chance (if only an admittedly small one) that the Bruins and Canadiens could rekindle their rivalry in the most dramatic fashion, on the game’s greatest stage. Specifically, according to our Elo simulations, there’s a 1.4 percent probability the Habs and Bruins meet for Lord Stanley’s mug, which ranks 16th among all potential matchups:

The most likely 2021 Stanley Cup matchups

Highest odds for a given combination of teams to meet in the Stanley Cup final, based on 1,000 simulations of the season using Elo ratings

Team 1 Team 2 Finals Rematch? Odds of Happening
Tampa Bay Lightning Boston Bruins 8.1%
Tampa Bay Lightning Colorado Avalanche 4.0
Tampa Bay Lightning Vegas Golden Knights 3.0
Tampa Bay Lightning Philadelphia Flyers 3.0
Boston Bruins Colorado Avalanche 3.0
Tampa Bay Lightning New York Islanders 2.9
Tampa Bay Lightning Toronto Maple Leafs 2.6
Boston Bruins Vegas Golden Knights 2.5
Tampa Bay Lightning St. Louis Blues 2.4
Tampa Bay Lightning Montreal Canadiens 2.3
Boston Bruins Toronto Maple Leafs 2.1
Philadelphia Flyers Colorado Avalanche 2.1
Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes 2.0
Colorado Avalanche Carolina Hurricanes 1.7
Boston Bruins St. Louis Blues 1.6
Boston Bruins Montreal Canadiens 1.4
New York Islanders Colorado Avalanche 1.3
Vegas Golden Knights Toronto Maple Leafs 1.3
Colorado Avalanche New York Islanders 1.3
Toronto Maple Leafs Colorado Avalanche 1.2

Simulations as of Feb. 18, 2021. Finals rematches denote whether a combination ever occurred before in the history of the Stanley Cup Final.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

(It also ranks third among rematches of previous Cup finals, trailing only Boston-Toronto and 2019’s pairing of the Bruins and St. Louis Blues. Yes, Boston and Montreal did meet in those seven finals matchups all-time, though not since 1978.)

To be clear, the last season the Bruins and Canadiens — or any teams from the same conference — could meet in the Stanley Cup Final was 1980-81. But this year is weird and different in so many ways, and the Bruins and Canadiens are both very much on track for the playoffs. So it’s within the realm of possibility that they could meet in the Stanley Cup Final.

A 14 in 1,000 chance of seeing a Bruins-Habs final? Not great odds, sure, but not impossible either. If it happens, no one will remember that the Bruins and Canadiens didn’t meet during the regular season — and the rivalry may get nearly as heated as it was when Richard had his infamous run-in with the B’s 66 years earlier.

Neil Paine contributed research.


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Footnotes

  1. To that point, Richard was the only player in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season, which he did in just 50 games in 1944-45. It would take another 16 seasons for the NHL to witness another 50-goal scorer — Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, a former teammate of Richard’s, netted 50 pucks for the Habs in 1960-61 — and another 36 seasons before Mike Bossy equalled the Rocket’s record of 50 goals in 50 games. There’s a reason the NHL’s goal scoring trophy is named for Richard, after all.

  2. It wasn’t the first time in Rocket’s career that he attacked a referee — he choked Hugh McLean in a hotel lobby in 1951 and slapped George Hayes in the face during an on-ice brawl in 1954.

  3. For now — they’re tied with the Canadiens and Maple Leafs for No. 1 all-time at 750 matchups apiece until the next Toronto-Montreal tilt on Feb. 20.

  4. Especially travel across the border between the U.S. and Canada.

  5. 23 in the NHL era and one in the pre-NHL era.

  6. Among teams that have played at least 820 regular season games, or the equivalent of ten full seasons — sorry, Vegas Golden Knights.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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