Often the avid hockey fan will hear the statement that “rivalries are created in the playoffs”. The playoffs are a completely different animal: the games are faster, the players dig deeper, and emotions fly. However, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made the playoffs once in the past ten years, so who is there for the Leafs to hate?
MONTREAL CANADIENS RIVALRY
The most obvious of answers to this question is the Montreal Canadiens. Two of the most popular and recognizable teams in the NHL have many reasons to hate each other: they both represent the two biggest cities in Canada, they both are members of the “Original Six” teams and therefore have had 97 years worth of hockey to build a hatred for each other, and the Anglophone vs Francophone undertones add heat to the fire. However, this would be a pretty pointless article if we were to stop here.
The point that “rivalries are created in the playoffs” really explains the state of the rivalry between the Habs and the Leafs. The teams have met in the playoffs for 15 series, so that has given plenty of opportunity for a rivalry to be built, but they have not met in the playoffs in 36 years. The fire that once burned brightly between these two teams has dimmed due to the Toronto Maple Leafs latest generational slump. Sure, being in the same division and playing 4-6 regular season games a year against each other stokes the embers a little bit, but there is nothing like playing up to 7 games in a row against each other to make two teams hate each other. Overtime game winners go in against the home team, non-penalized cheap shots ending a player’s season, and a team eventually losing the series can really piss off a team and its fanbase. Without this blood, piss, and vinegar that is the NHL playoffs, this classic rivalry is more so with respect to the past than recent events.
BOSTON BRUINS RIVALRY
Being an Original Six team, the Leafs rivalry with the Boston Bruins has had plenty of time to ferment, just like it has with the Montreal Canadiens. With plenty of reasons to hate each other coming from the past with 14 playoff series against each other, the modern day reasons for despising the Bruins comes from the fact that both teams are very physical teams and the Bruins domination of the Leafs over the past five seasons.
So what happened that one time the Leafs made the playoffs in the past 10 years? Well, one the most memorable playoff collapses in recent history of course! Many of you are aware of how these events went down, but to quickly summarise: the Leafs were the underdog going into the series, fought tooth and nail to bring the series to game 7 in Boston, were up 4-1 with 10:42 left in the third, then Boston rallied to tie the game 4-4 and force overtime, in which Patrice Bergeron scored the game/series winner for Boston. Losing that series stings like any other team losing a series, but the Leafs have been falling flat on their face each season since, so the pain just builds as the Bruins continue to qualify for the playoffs season after season. However, I feel that the Bruins pity the Leafs more now than they hate us; they have bigger issues with the powerful Montreal Canadiens. For now the seeds for a rivalry between the Leafs and Bruins has been planted, but until the Leafs start becoming a real threat in the standings, the Boston Bruins just simply won’t be bothered to get riled up by Leafs Nation.
BUFFALO SABRES RIVALRY
I went to a pre-season game about 2 years ago where it was the Buffalo Sabres versus the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. I was pretty excited for this game since I had not been to the ACC in about 7 or 8 years since I’d rather go see the Leafs play in Buffalo where the games are significantly cheaper to go to and closer to my native town, Welland Ontario. With most pre-season games being a time for teams to test out prospects, the trend was broken with all of the big boys for both teams playing and ready to flex their pecs. I was looking forward to a good game, seeing all of these stars in action, but little did I know that I was to going to personally witness one of the most exciting Leafs games in recent memory. Like any good game, plenty of goals were scored, big saves were made, and a line brawl fired up the sold-out building.
When two goalies come across the ice to exchange a few words and some haymakers, you know that there is beef between these two teams. However, with the Leafs and Sabres only meeting in the playoffs only once in the playoffs during 1998-99 season, it’s hard to say that this rivalry was created by the playoffs. The Leafs and Sabres rivalry comes from the extremely close proximity that the teams have from each other and the struggles that the teams have faced over the past 5 seasons. Being only 160 km (100 miles) away from each other, the fans of both teams are in constant interaction with each other, and bleed into each other’s arenas in great numbers for games against one another. There is nothing like an opposing teams fan base out cheering the home team’s fan base during a game to piss a fan off.
Another strong fact is that both of these teams have mired in mediocrity recently. The Sabres have only made the playoffs twice in the past five seasons and entered into a full scale rebuild last season. The Leafs have only qualified for the playoffs once in the past five seasons, and there is many rumours and concrete evidence pointing to the fact that they are entering into a full scale rebuild as well. Both of the teams and their respective fan bases are frustrated and clawing at anything to verify their patronage in these seasons of losing. Be it the next time they beat those stupid Leafs/Sabres, or winning the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, there will always be a reason for these teams to hate each other. The one thing that is for sure is that no matter where both of these teams are in the standings, their games against each other will never be a for sure win for either team and will be filled with grit and passion. The Buffalo Sabres are our true modern day rivals.
This generation of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey has been a very difficult one to cope with. With each season holding so much hope and promise at the beginning, the Leafs keep finding new and creative ways to let down their fans. Nothing will ever stop me from being a Leafs fan though, and in these tough times, rivalries are what keep me tuning into games. When it comes to times like these, if we can somehow beat our rivals that we have collected over the years, I’ll enjoy that small victory.
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Cover Photo by: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn