This week is special because it marks the first visit of the year from the hated Habs, and every clash with the Canadiens is a special event. It’s even better when it can be repeated 48 hours later. That’s the case this week, with the Bruins and Montreal meeting in one of hockey’s greatest events — the home-and-home series.
Nothing gets a rivalry going like a couple of intense meetings in quick succession, with the bad blood from the first encounter still fresh enough to spice up the rematch.
“Games like this are fun,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. “They usually create a little bit of a rivalry when you play back-to-back games. Something might brew up in the first one and carry over to the second one. Then if you lose the first one, you have a chance to redeem yourself. So they’re always fun games to play in.”
Sadly, they are also far too rare in these days of the 30-team NHL. After this week’s back-to-back matchups with the Canadiens, the Bruins play just two other home-and-homes this season. And both of those are even spaced out a bit, with Boston hosting the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, Nov. 30, before going to Toronto on Saturday, Dec. 3, and the Bruins playing in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 25, before the Senators visit the Garden on Tuesday, Feb. 28.
With the kind of intensity and excitement these home-and-home series create, the NHL is missing an opportunity to spice up what can be a monotonous regular season with more of these back-to-back sets. Of course, there’s a limit to what the league can do with 30 teams and a schedule that has every team meet at least once a season, and many players and fans enjoy that variety.
“I like being able to play every team,” Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. “I wasn’t a big fan of not being able to see teams on the other side. I remember when I was in the West and the fans in Anaheim never got to see Sidney Crosby. I don’t think that’s right either. I think you should be able to play everybody once, so I actually don’t mind the way it’s set up now.”
But the need to see every team is less vital now than it’s ever been. With expanding national coverage on Versus and NBC and the option to see out-of-market games through the league’s Center Ice package, the stars of the other conference are still visible to all. Losing the occasional chance to see them in person is a small price to pay for the opportunity to make so many more games more meaningful and exciting.
Division rivals play each other just six times in the current format. That number stood at eight as recently as the 2007-08 season. There were 30 teams then as well, and a return to eight games against each divisional opponent wouldn’t require a drastic overhaul of the schedule.
Those eight games could include a pair of home-and-homes against each divisional rival. With the four games against the other 10 teams in the conference remaining, there are opportunities for some home-and-homes there as well.
“It’s a different story when it’s Montreal,” Bruins center Gregory Campbell said. “If it was New Jersey or the Islanders it would be a little different, but the excitement builds when it is a rival like Montreal.”
Some of those opponents might not have the cachet of a Montreal matchup, but would any Bruins fan complain about a back-to-back set against the Rangers or Flyers? And even two straight against a team like the Islanders could add interest to those encounters. Familiarity breeds contempt, and nothing breeds good hockey better than a little contempt.
There is the danger of having too much of a good thing. Marchand admitted that, “Home and homes aren’t really something I like a ton. I don’t want more of them, but when you get them you have to take them.”
So not every player will necessarily love the idea of adding that much intensity to the grind of an already grueling regular season. But the NHL is in the entertainment business, and shouldn’t they strive to make the product as entertaining as possible for the fans buying tickets and tuning in at home? What does that better than a good old-fashioned home-and-home set against a bitter rival?
“It’s exciting,” Thornton said. “I was talking to somebody about this the other day at the dog park. We play these guys only six times and you think, ‘Oh wow, we’re going to play them twice in one week.’ But I think it’s exciting to be able to play a home and home against the same team, especially when they’re a rival like Montreal. I think it’s a good thing.”
And a thing there should be more of in today’s game.