By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - After not meeting for nearly two years, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings will face off twice in 12 days breathing new life into a dormant rivalry that was once one of the NHL's most fierce.
Two of the NHL's 'Original Six' franchises, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings clashed for the 645th time on Saturday with Detroit skating away with a 5-4 shootout win to level the all-time record for the series at 276-276-93.
Even though the Motor City and Canada's financial hub are located just 371 km (230 miles) apart, Toronto and Detroit had not faced off against each other since January 7, 2012 making Saturday's contest a bit of a novelty.
With Detroit stuck in the Western conference and Toronto in the East, meetings had been few and far between but that is about to change.
Realignment has put Leafs and Wings back in the same division guaranteeing four regular season contests, including the league's outdoor showcase, the Winter Classic, on New Year's day.
"There's a lot of history between the two teams and you can kind of rekindle that rivalry this year, especially with us being divisional matchups and obviously coming to the Eastern conference," said Leafs center Nazem Kadri, who grew up midway between the two cities in London, Ontario.
There was plenty of nostalgia hanging over the matchup at Air Canada Centre and more on the way as the NHL pays its annual homage to the game's outdoor roots on January 1 at Michigan Stadium.
The Leafs entered Saturday's game trailing the Red Wings by just two points in the Atlantic division standings with the hype building for a New Year's day showdown that is expected to attract over 100,000 to the Big House.
While fans were keen to see an immediate renewal of hostilities, coaches and players warned it would take time to work up a good hate.
Having not played each other for almost two years, Red Wings' Mike Babcock shrugged off talk that there even was a rivalry while his Maple Leafs counterpart Randy Carlyle was focused on other matters.
"I'm more concerned about winning hockey games than building the rivalry," agreed Carlyle. "The rivalry is something that develops when you have competitive teams and you play a number times against each other.
"Obviously there is a long history between Toronto and Detroit but with this coaching staff were trying to make sure we can provide a consistent brand of hockey which we haven't been able to do."
The Maple Leafs and Red Wings do not currently have the familiarity that can breed the necessary contempt that provides the foundation for any great rivalry but Saturday's meeting marked a solid start towards rekindling one.
While the game was tame, the shootout loss has added a dash of spice to the New Year's day re-match as the Maple Leafs search for a measure of revenge.
"The Winter Classic will help with all that but to have a rivalry to me what you do is you meet in the playoffs, you have two really good teams, you have hard series and you build up some animosity for one another," said Babcock, who will also serve as head coach for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics in February. "That hasn't been possible.
"I think those things can happen over time but right now we're just trying to get our guys to play the best they can."
(Editing by Ian Ransom)