The 'V' Spot: Heated Rivalries Spice Up Quest for Lord Stanley's Cup
During the second period of Game 2 of the Toronto-New Jersey Eastern Conference semifinal on Saturday, Leafs defenseman Cory Cross took down Devils center Bobby Holik. Cross stood over the fallen Holik and drilled him in the back about six times with his stick. They don’t call him Cory Cross-check for nothing.
The 6’4, 230 lb. center from the Czech republic immediately stood up, snarled-and smiled. Holik had drawn a double-minor for his patience, and he probably didn’t even notice the indentation in his pads.
Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Every April, the NHL commences the fiercest championship tournament in all of professional sports. Game in and game out players repeatedly put their bodies on the line for sixty minutes—and usually beyond—in order to gain the most marginal of advantages to advance their team to the next round.
The rough and tumble play instantly creates rivalries and hatreds that don’t readily fade away once the final whistle blows and the teams line-up for the ceremonial post series handshake.
The Devils have been in the center of controversy, and the defending Stanley Cup champions can now count among the teams that hate their guts the normal regional rivals like the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, and new playoff rivals like the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Carolina-New Jersey? You bet after Devils captain Scott Stevens leveled star rookie Shane Willis and the Canes’ revered captain Ron Francis with solid, clean hits. Both players left the series with concussions. The look in Stevens’ eye afterwards was the same one he gave Red Wing Dino Ciccarelli in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals after he ended Viktor Kozlov and said, “You’re next.”
Hurricanes fans responded with a cute little chant about Stevens that Ranger fans still do after the trumpet blast about Islander legend Dennis Potvin.
“Stevens doesn’t check a guy’s age, his salary, or his Hall of Fame credentials,” Potvin told ESPN.com. “When he lines him up, he hits him.”
And that roughness combined with the beautiful finesse that emerges from the physical play is what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs a unique spectacle. It also makes teams boil inside, creating numerous unnatural rivalries.
The Dallas Stars just knocked off the Edmonton Oilers for the fourth consecutive year. In perhaps the most entertaining series of the first round, the “Oil” put up a helluva fight with young stars Doug Weight, Ryan Smith, George Laraque taking the Grumpy Old Men to six games with all but the last one decided by one goal.
A couple of years ago Claude Lemieux and the Colorado Avalanche left the Detroit Red Wings a bloody mess-and Detroit has never forgiven the mountain men, even though Lemieux is now on his second team since then.
As for Toronto-New Jersey, once Cross’ penalty time had expired, he probably wasn’t regretting his bludgeoning of Holik. Holik had one of the worst third periods in his career. His primary defensive assignment, Leafs captain Mats Sundin had two goals and an assist in the third period as the Leafs came back from a 5-2 deficit to send the game into overtime. Holik sat in the locker room with a big, fat minus 4 rating on the game.
This was the same Holik who held Sundin to virtually nothing in last year’s playoffs and have been battling each other for over fifteen years, even over in Europe playing for Czechoslovakia and Finland, respectively.
That’s a rivalry.
But as the old cliché goes, it ain’t over until its over and Holik got the last laugh as he slid a perfect pass to Randy McKay with five minutes to go in OT to even the series at 1-1.
And there’s still two more months of this.