NHL season should spark new rivalries, reignite old ones

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Division realignment and the intradivision schedules have the 2020-21 NHL season primed to be a sprint to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, complete with the intensity, emotion and animosity typically reserved for the spring months.

“I think I’m going to be in the penalty box a little bit more just with the hate that you’re going to probably get on for a lot of these teams,” Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. “I don’t think we’re used to playing playoff series against every single team in our division. You think about it, and it’s pretty much what it is.”

Players, coaches and executives from across the NHL agree that the 56-game season will create team and player rivalries that didn’t previously exist, or that were bubbling under the surface, and intensify the more known rivalries, both historic and recently developed.

The eight teams in the MassMutual East Division, Discover Central Division and Honda West Division will play each other eight times this season. The seven teams in the Scotia North Division will play each other at least nine times and, in some cases, 10.

That’s 10 episodes of the Battle of Alberta (Calgary Flames vs. Edmonton Oilers), nine of the historic rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, including three in the last week of the season, and eight of the geographic rivalries in New York (New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders) and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins).

“There’s a reason the NHL plays their playoffs within the division, it’s to create those rivalries and that hatred, and we don’t get a lot of that during the regular season bumping around from city to city with absolutely no back-to-backs against the same team in the same city,” Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think you combine the shortened season, playing teams multiple times, including back-to-backs and some four times in a row, you’re going to get a lot of hatred on the ice and a lot of familiarity with each other and a lot of battles that spill over from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3. And that’s why, for me, playoff hockey in the NHL is the greatest sports event there is to watch, and we’re going to get, I think, a good dose of that during the regular season.”

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Rangers president John Davidson echoed that sentiment, speaking specifically about the emotions and calling this season “a bit of a throwback in some ways” because of how important division rivalries will be in determining who makes the playoffs.

The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs, just as it used to be from 1981-93, when the divisions were named the Norris, Smythe, Patrick and Adams. 

“It’s something we’ve definitely talked about,” Rangers left wing Chris Kreider said. “I expect almost a playoff-style approach. At some point, you can just throw out the X’s and the O’s because each team knows what the other team is doing. … At the end of the day, it’s you versus them and it’s a grind.”

Coaches are especially excited because there will be less of a need to prescout opponents and devise detailed game plans for teams they haven’t faced in months.

However, the repetitive nature of the schedule will require coaches to get more creative in their adjustments.

“Let’s face it, you play the same team three times in a row or whatever it may be, it’s tough to beat a team three times in a row,” San Jose Sharks coach Bob Boughner said. “People adjust and you learn the tendencies of the team you’re playing. That’s going to be a different ballgame for all of us coaches and I think players as well.”

Minnesota Wild captain Jared Spurgeon said the biggest changes will be in the system play from game to game to avoid becoming predictable against the same opponent.

“Teams are going to have to be adjusting well on the fly compared to when you’re locked into your system for a month or two until you start switching,” Spurgeon said on the NHL @TheRink podcast. 

Moving on after games will be different too. It’s usually less of a chore for players to forget about what happened in the game they just played and move on to the next opponent because of the travel and preparations, but memories will remain longer with the time span between playing each team shorter this season.

“There are going to be a lot of situations where you play teams and there will be some strained relationships from one night to the next,” Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse said. “I think it’ll be good for everyone.”

Still, harnessing in-game emotions will be as crucial this season as it typically is in the playoffs.

“There certainly can be a lot more animosity created when you see a team as often as we’re going to see teams,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “You may see more feistiness throughout the NHL this year because of the frequency you’re going to play one team. When a game is played at the pace ours is in a small area, then that can happen. … I think it’s going to lend itself to a lot more entertaining hockey.”

NHL.com columnist Nicholas J. Cotsonika and staff writer Tom Gulitti contributed to this report

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