Top 10 NHL Rivalries of All Time

Top 10 NHL Rivalries of All Time

The sport of hockey is known for its physicality and intensity; in the NHL, many notable rivalries have spawned between teams league-wide. These feuds have lasted for many decades, involving great players and coaches and resulting in violent brawls, shouting matches, and even injuries. Fans of hockey can often name the most storied rivalries in their sport, and these competitions often bring spectators from across North America to view their exciting faceoffs.  


What are the biggest NHL rivalries of all time?

  1. Boston Bruins vs Montreal Canadiens
  2. Montreal Canadiens vs Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals
  4. New Jersey Devils vs New York Rangers
  5. Calgary Flames vs Edmonton Oilers
  6. Ottawa Senators vs Toronto Maple Leafs
  7. Chicago Blackhawks vs Detroit Red Wings
  8. Colorado Avalanche vs Detroit Red Wings
  9. Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs
  10. New York Islanders vs New York Rangers

1. Boston Bruins vs Montreal Canadiens

The rivalry between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens is widely considered the greatest and most intense rivalry in the NHL. First meeting in the playoffs in 1929, the two teams quickly cemented their rivalry status by returning to the playoffs in the following two seasons. Eventually, both the Canadiens and the Bruins became powerful teams in the NHL, and their rivalry reached a bitter and infamous peak in the 1970s. Although Boston managed to win two Stanley Cups from the 1940s to the 1980s, they failed to beat Montreal every time they met in the postseason, leading to a bitter feud filled with fights and mayhem. In the 1990s, the Bruins began a winning streak, eliminating Montreal from the playoffs four out of five times between 1990 and 1994. A memorable moment in the rivalry’s history was the Richard Riot of March 13, 1955. Canadiens fans, livid that one of their star players, Maurice Richard, had been suspended for the season for striking Boston’s Hal Laycoe, began a riot on the streets of Montreal that caused tremendous damage and involved a tear gas bomb exploding.

2. Montreal Canadiens vs Toronto Maple Leafs

As teams hailing from two prominent Canadian cities, a rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs seems inevitable, so it should come as no surprise that their rivalry is considered the oldest in the NHL. These two teams have faced off in the NHL for years, with their competition stretching back to the early decades of the NHL, when Toronto and Montreal were among the “Original Six” NHL Teams. Neither team was a powerhouse in the early years, but in time, they became dominant, and by the 1940s, their rivalry had expanded, with Toronto winning the Stanley Cup five times in the 1940s and Montreal winning twice. However, the rivalry truly took off in the 1960s, particularly with the long-running feud of that decade’s coaches: Toe Blake for Montreal and Punch Imlach for Toronto. The rivalry between Toronto and Montreal is considered as much a cultural rivalry as a competitive one, with the two provinces of Canada squaring off against each other in intense matchups. A memorable moment from the rivalry was the 1967 Stanley Cup Final, when the favored Canadiens, then two-time defending champions, lost in a stunning upset against the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs earned a 3-1 victory in Game 6 of that series.   

3. Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals

The Penguins and the Capitals come from two of the most well-known cities in Northeastern America: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., so it is only natural that they would form a rivalry. The competitive streak between these two teams began in the 1980s, where they faced off in a number of intense, back-and-forth battles on the iceThe hostility between the two teams came to a head in the early 1990s, when they faced off twice in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1991 and 1992. The Penguins defeated the Capitals in 1991, but Washington rebounded the following year, earning the second-best record in the league and facing the Penguins yet again in the postseason opener. The intensely physical series that followed resulted in a tough battle for Pittsburgh and led to Washington taking a commanding lead in Game 4. However, stunningly, the Penguins rallied and managed to pull off a comeback, winning a decisive Game 7 with a score of 3-1. In the years since the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Washington has remained strong.

4. New Jersey Devils vs New York Rangers

Known as the “Battle of the Hudson,” the rivalry between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers is another of the greatest rivalries in NHL history. Prior to the late 20th century, the Rangers did not consider the Devils rivals. However, that changed in 1988 when New York and New Jersey faced off in the final game of the regular season, both struggling for a playoff spot. In that game, a miraculous overtime goal by Devils player John MacLean stunned the Rangers, sending the Devils to the playoffs and birthing a massive rivalry between the two teams. In the years that followed, the Rangers and Devils became bitter enemies, and many of their meetings have led to brawls. Most prominent among these brawls is a bench-clearing fight from 1992, which came after the final buzzer of Game 6 in the playoff series of that year. The Rangers also overpowered the Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference Final en route to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. The rivalry has cooled off a bit in the modern NHL, but it remains one of the most storied in the league.

5. Calgary Flames vs Edmonton Oilers

The rivalry between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers is another of the oldest rivalries in the NHL, with the first meeting between the two teams occurring in 1895. In that fabled meeting, Calgary defeated Edmonton at home with a score of 2-1, enraging the Edmonton fans so much that they demanded a rematch, creating what was later known as the “Battle of Alberta,” named for the Canadian province where both cities are located. In the decades that followed, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames have created a heated rivalry, which lives on today. The rivalry even incorporated one of the greatest hockey players of all time, Wayne Gretzky, who played for the Edmonton Oilers from 1978 to 1988. Today, Flames and Oilers fans consider their teams’ matchups to be as important as Stanley Cup bouts, and they are known for their dramatic brawls. Even the mayors of the two cities are known for joining in on the rivalry, placing bets that have sometimes involved the losing mayor wearing the opposing team’s jersey for a day. 

6. Ottawa Senators vs Toronto Maple Leafs

In contrast to some of the other major rivalries in the NHL, the competition between the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs (sometimes known as “the Battle of Ontario”) is a rather small and one-sided rivalry. Though both teams have been dominant in the league at one time or another, their periods of success have rarely aligned. However, the one-sided, back-and-forth nature of the rivalry is one of its charms and has sustained it as a competition for many years. Beginning in 1999, the two teams faced off in the playoffs four times (1999-00, 2000-01, 2001-02, and 2003-04), and each time, Toronto beat Ottawa, only to be eliminated soon afterward themselves. One of these matchups, in 2000-01, was notable because the Maple Leafs beat a higher-seeded Ottawa team in the first round of the playoffs, only to lose to the New Jersey Devils in the second round. Due to their rather inconsistent success rates, the rivalry between the Senators and the Maple Leafs has remained somewhat of a small regional feud but has the potential to boil over into something greater in the future.     

7. Chicago Blackhawks vs Detroit Red Wings

Another Original Six rivalry, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings, have had a long, albeit inconsistent, feud in the NHL. In their first meeting on November 24, 1926, the Red Wings (then named the Detroit Cougars) defeated Chicago 1-0. In the decades that followed, the rivalry between these two teams led to a number of postseason matchups and exciting regular-season games, but also to rather alternating levels of success between the two teams. In 1992, the Blackhawks managed to stun the division-winning Red Wings in the playoffs, winning the Norris Division Finals four games to none. In their next playoff meeting, part of the 1995 Western Conference Final, Detroit beat Chicago in five games. The two teams then failed to meet in the postseason for 14 years, with Detroit dominating the league to win four Stanley Cups from 1997 to 2008 and Chicago fading into obscurity. However, in the mid-2000s, Detroit began to flounder while Chicago flourished, leading to another shift in the rivalry’s dynamic. Nonetheless, the two teams are still noted enemies and continue to draw excited fans throughout the NHL season.

8. Colorado Avalanche vs Detroit Red Wings

A far bloodier rivalry involving the Red Wings existed between Detroit and the Colorado Avalanche. Beginning in the mid-1990s, this intense rivalry lasted through the early 2000s and featured intense, exciting hockey matches along with bloody and violent brawls. The two teams won a combined five Stanley Cup championships between 1996 and 2002. Memorable moments from the Avalanche-Wings rivalry are numerous. In May of 1996, during Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, Detroit forward Slava Kozlov injured Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote by smashing him face-first into the glass, causing a large head wound that required 20 stitches, though Foote later returned to the game and scored a goal. Six days later, in Game 6 of the series, Colorado forward Claude Lemieux earned a major penalty and game misconduct for checking Detroit’s Kris Draper from behind, causing him to hit the boards and resulting in a broken cheekbone, a fractured jaw and nose, and several broken teeth. Lemieux was later suspended for two games. Dozens of other brawls, from shouting matches to fistfights, have marked this very violent rivalry.  

9. Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs

While the Bruins-Maple Leafs Rivalry is nowhere near as intense as the feud between Boston and Montreal, it is an equally long-standing rivalry that has gathered many fans over the years. Boston played Toronto in their second game as an NHL team during the 1924-25 season, losing 5-3 to the then-Toronto St. Patricks. Boston lost its first six games against Toronto before finally winning the seventh. Toronto had the better of the rivalry for most of its early history, but that changed in 1966 with the arrival of famed Bruins player Bobby Orr. Orr’s addition to the team helped Boston gain traction against the Maple Leafs, upending the rivalry and putting it in Boston’s favor. Memorable moments in the rivalry have included the famous Darryl Sittler game of 1976, an 11-4 victory for Toronto where Sittler (a player for the Maple Leafs) beat the team scoring record of Maurice Richard by scoring 10 points on six goals and four assists. 

10. New York Islanders vs New York Rangers

Known as “the Battle of New York,” the rivalry between the Islanders and the Rangers has been a heated 20-year feud despite its lack of significant or memorable games. The two teams have met infrequently in the postseason, as their success rates have been notably divergent, with the Islanders missing the playoffs for seven seasons after their first matchup with the Rangers in 1994. Thanks to Wayne Gretzky and others, the Rangers managed to keep themselves in the playoffs for the next three seasons, but eventually, both they and the Islanders slumped to the bottom of the league’s rankings. Though their successful periods seem to alternate, the two teams are still major rivals, with something of a “big-brother, little-brother” dynamic between them that contributes to their hostility. 

FAQ

What is the biggest NHL rivalry?

The biggest rivalry in the NHL is undoubtedly between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens. In addition to playing in more games against each other than any other pair in the league, the opposing cities are defined by their loyalty to their teams. The bitter feud between them was strong enough to trigger the infamous “Richard Riot” of 1955, and the intensity of the feud has not subsided even to this day.

What is the oldest NHL rivalry?

The oldest official rivalry in the NHL is the rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. As part of the “Original Six,” both teams have faced off since the league’s early years, with the feud going back to 1917. The age of their rivalry also traces back to the rivalry between the two cities, which have long fought in a “war of culture” against each other. The rivalry has grown so deeply rooted that those attempting to determine a “victor” have all but given up, allowing it to persist onward to the modern day. 

What are the “Original Six” in the NHL?

The “Original Six” are surprisingly not the first six teams to form the NHL. On the contrary, the NHL underwent a long period of flux in its early years, with its teams changing often. The term “Original Six” refers to the six teams who survived the NHL’s change from a six-team league to a 12-team league in 1967. These six teams, which formed the NHL from 1942-1967, are the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the New York Rangers. Of these six teams, multiple major rivalries have spawned, including the following rivalries: Bruins-Canadiens, Canadiens-Maple Leafs, Blackhawks-Red Wings, and Bruins-Maple Leafs.