Greatest sports rivalries: Habs vs. Leafs vs. Bruins vs. Nordiques

Players pair off during a bench clearing brawl at the end of the 2nd period April 20, 1984 amid sticks and gloves that litter the ice. The Canadiens went on to defect the Nordiques 5-3 to win the series 4-2. (CP PHOTO/Arne Glassboug)

The Montreal Canadiens have made a lot of enemies en route to their 24 Stanley Cup triumphs, and each rivalry has been white-hot at different times.

Vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Angriest era: 1960s

As Canada crept toward its 100th birthday, the country’s two juggernaut NHL teams symbolized a deep division in the very fabric of the country. Montreal and Toronto met in the playoffs seven times from 1959–67, with the Habs holding a 4–3 advantage.

Exhibit A: Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach despised the Canadiens so much that he was disappointed to beat them in the semifinal—which the Leafs did in both 1963 and ’64—as opposed to the final, where Toronto could have embarrassed the Habs on a bigger stage.

Exhibit B: The 1967 Centennial Cup remains the signature moment from the golden era of hockey’s classic rivalry. Imlach claimed Montreal would never beat his cagey Leafs with Rogie Vachon in net, whom he referred to as a “Jr. B goalie.” He was right. The Canadiens had a spot saved for the Cup at the Expo 67 celebrations, but it landed in Ontario after the Leafs’ six-game win.

Exhibit C: Save for 1993—when the Leafs and Canadiens nearly met for the 100th Stanley Cup—the two teams haven’t really been good at the same time since ’67. But with the NHL’s new division-based playoff format and both teams improving, the first post-season battle between Montreal and Toronto since 1979 looms.

Vs. Boston Bruins
Angriest era: 1970s

Montreal and Boston have met a record 33 times in the post-season, but the stakes were never higher than in the ’70s, when both were league powers. The Big Bad Bruins won Cups in ’70 and ’72 and could have dominated the decade had they not gone 0-for-4 in playoff series versus Montreal, which won six titles in the ’70s.

Exhibit A: The Canadiens shocked the hockey world in ’71 by upsetting a powerhouse Bruins team that finished 24 points ahead of them in the standings. Rookie goalie Ken Dryden, who had all of six regular-season games under his belt, was dominant in the Habs crease.

Exhibit B: In game seven of the 1979 semifinal, the Bruins, clinging to a one-goal lead in the Forum, were whistled with just a few minutes remaining for having too many men on the ice. Guy Lafleur tied it late and Yvon Lambert delivered the dagger in overtime to break Bruins coach Don Cherry’s heart.

Exhibit C: The hate remains. In March 2011, Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara rode Montreal’s Max Pacioretty into a stanchion, and the latter suffered a fractured vertebra. Boston fans said it was a rub-out gone wrong; Habs fans said it was a dirty play laced with malicious intent. The teams met a few weeks later in an epic first-round series, won in overtime of game seven by Boston.

Vs. Quebec Nordiques
Angriest era: 1980s

In terms of visceral hatred, this matchup has no equal. Quebecers felt Montrealers looked down their cosmopolitan noses at them, and desperately wanted to see the Nordiques fight back on their behalf.

Exhibit A: The anger exploded on April 20, 1984, when the two teams—in the midst of clashing four times during six playoff seasons from 1982–87—waged the “Good Friday Massacre” in game six of their second-round series. Included in the carnage of the contest’s 252 penalty minutes and 10 ejections was a fight between Montreal’s Mark Hunter and his brother, Dale, of the Nordiques.

Exhibit B: The following year, the teams played possibly the closest seven-game series in league history. Each club scored 24 goals in the second-round series, the final tally coming courtesy of Quebec’s Peter Stastny in overtime.

Exhibit C: The animosity transcended cities. After winning his first game against Montreal following his 1995 trade to Colorado—where the Nords had moved earlier that year—Patrick Roy flipped the puck at his old coach Mario Tremblay, just to let Tremblay and the team know they never should have crossed him.


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