Will Canadiens vs. Bruins rivalry be nasty or neutered in Winter Classic?

Will Canadiens vs. Bruins rivalry be nasty or neutered in Winter Classic?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bruins vs. Canadiens isn't just another NHL rivalry.

There are plenty of so-called rivalries around the league that feel downright cordial in a lot of ways — and are not to be confused with the Sharks/Wild Rivalry Night Games Wednesdays on NBC Sports Net. The teams don't like playing each other maybe, insofar as there are division points on the line, and maybe one of them even bounced the other from the playoffs once or twice in the last few years. But let's not act as though there's actual “I don't like that guy” hatred from one side or the other. 

Not so for Boston/Montreal. There seems to be real and actual animosity there. Though they often wouldn't come out and say it, these are two teams that not only don't like playing each other, they just plain don't like each other at all.

Hockey is a sport that necessarily engenders enmity. Even an innocuous-seeming hit can get you a little steamed in certain situations, but there's an intention in games like these that is absent from the average mid-season road date at Florida. Things get personal, and it happens pretty fast. And given the playoff meetings, the wars of words between coaches and players, and everything else, that all seeps off the ice and into the marrow of the players who have been around the rivalry longest.

“It's probably the team I've played the most since I've been with this organization, and there's still a lot of familiar faces on the other side,” said Lars Eller.

However, familiarity like this breeds plenty of contempt.

“It's really two teams that don't like each other, so it just adds to the whole thing,” Eller added. “It's gonna be awesome. There's definitely a couple guys who, if I saw them, I wouldn't go over and shake their hands or anything. Let's put it that way.”

Nice to get the two points and all, especially in a race where the teams are separated by a single point, but even nicer to get them against the arch-rival. That much is obvious even to a relative newcomer to the rivalry.

“It's already something that we get excited for and you want to make sure you get that win regardless of where we are in the standings,” said Landon Ferraro, who scored the game-winner in Boston's 3-1 win in Montreal a few weeks ago. “We could be 20 points apart and you still want that win against Montreal. You add that to the Winter Classic and you really want it because you know a lot more people are paying attention to this game and everything like that.”

Since 2013-14 alone, this is a rivalry with 159 penalties split between the two teams in just 18 games, including more than 20 majors. That, of course, takes into account the fact that any fight necessarily carries with it two majors, and in the last three years there have been seven of those. In some ways, that total feels like it should be a little low, but that's because the teams are 0-fer this season. Maybe that's the just way the league as a whole is going, but that doesn't mean these teams dislike each other any less.

Fighting or no, the sport is still physical, and there's a way for guys to let each other know they're there.

“You find out real quick from your first shift that it's a step up from other games and you have to make sure you're going and doing your part,” Ferraro said. “And if you can finish your check, you finish your check. It's just like the first game of playoffs: You gotta make sure you're known out there but at the same time you can't be running out of position to try and hit someone.”

The problem with the Winter Classic, to some extent, is that it has a sort of pacifying effect on even nastier rivalries. The attention the games receive, the number of fans in the three-times-bigger buildings, and maybe even a sense of wonder may contribute to the issue — Eller noted that he views the opportunity to play in this game like a kid on Christmas Eve — but this is Habs/Bruins and there's always that chance for things to be a little more combustible. Even absent the suspended Brad Marchand, no stranger to the lightning-rod controversies of spears and slew-foots in any game, let alone those of this gravity. One would have to imagine he'd be included in Eller's no-handshake list.

PK Subban noted it was unfortunate, in that respect, that Marchand isn't playing tomorrow. And for their part, the Bruins weren't all that willing to say too much bad about Subban, with Ferraro joking, “He hasn't done anything to me.”

Boston, through the now-departed Shawn Thornton, famously had the first fight in an NHL outdoor game at Fenway Park five years ago, back when Bruins/Flyers was obviously a bigger rivalry.

There isn't anyone on either roster who really fills the Shawn Thornton/Dan Carcillo “designated fighter” role this time around, but you never know. And that not-knowing lends a certain electricity to this game, just like any other in this rivalry, which simply cannot exist outside it. 

“You're part of it when you're playing in those games,” said Torrey Mitchell. “You can feel it just in the fans, you know? The cities just don't like each other. It just brings so much more emotion into the games, even though it's just a regular-season games. They're fun games to play in because you can feel it.”

The “fun” element to all this is an odd one, because these are players who freely admit to putting a little extra oomph into their hits when they get the opportunity. Dennis Seidenberg, a long-time veteran of the Bruins/Habs wars over the years, noted that there's a temptation to really try to drill someone, but it's something that necessarily must be overcome because ultimately the best way to do serious damage to your rival is to pick up a 'W.'

“You gotta be smart about it,” he said. “It can't be about going out there and trying to hit as hard as you can. At the end of the day you gotta be what you have to be in order to prevent them from scoring. Once you get out there and start playing it's a little easier.”

So leaving aside the cavernous stadium in which this game will be played, and the hordes of media and national attention, teams do recognize that they can't dramatically change their approach regardless of how they feel about the guys lining up across from them.

Said Canadiens rookie Daniel Carr, who has one career game played against the hated Black and Gold: “I think, at this level, if you need to amp yourself up [for Habs/Bruins], you're kind of in the wrong business.”