It's been a long time since there was so much anticipation for a game between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks at TD Garden.
The Canucks enter Thursday night's showdown leading the NHL standings with a 34-11-5 record (73 points). The Bruins sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 31-10-9 record (71 points). The last time the Bruins and Canucks played each other while leading their respective divisions was Jan. 7, 2012 in Boston.
It was the first game between these teams since the B's defeated the Canucks in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final -- one of the most intense and hate-filled playoff series in league history.
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The game didn't disappoint.
There was a line brawl four minutes into the first period. Several other fights happened, too. Brad Marchand clipped Sami Salo in the second period, got ejected and was later suspended five games. The Canucks won 4-3 on four power-play goals. It was a great victory for Vancouver, but it didn't change what happened the previous June.
Much of the animosity between these teams has died down in recent years. Only Brad Marchand remains from the 2011 rosters. The Canucks being a mostly average team (or worse) for the last decade hasn't helped, either.
While the Bruins have been a contender for most of the last 13 years with 10 playoff appearances and two more trips to the Stanley Cup Final during that span, the Canucks have largely struggled. Vancouver has missed the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, including each of the last three.
We probably won't see the kind of fireworks and hatred from the 2012 game when these teams play Thursday night. What we will see is two of the most talented squads in the league who both face very high expectations the rest of the season.
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If the Canucks are going to make a deep playoff run and potentially win the franchise's first ever Stanley Cup, they need to show they can beat teams like the Bruins on the road in a raucous environment. Vancouver has already lost on the road to contending teams such as the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Avalanche and Stars.
Canucks management is doing its best to take advantage of the team's opportunity to pursue a title. Last week the Canucks acquired top-six center Elias Lindholm -- the No. 1 ranked player rumored to be available before the March 8 trade deadline -- in a deal with the Calgary Flames. The Bruins reportedly had interest in Lindholm, but the Canucks were able to pry him from Calgary. He's already made a strong impact, too, scoring a goal Tuesday night in his debut.
The Bruins are motivated by last season's shocking first-round playoff defeat to the Florida Panthers after they set league records for the most wins and points in a season. Despite losing tons of good players in the offseason -- most notably Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tyler Bertuzzi and Dmitry Orlov -- the B's still rank among the best offensive and defensive teams in the sport.
In fact, the Bruins and Canucks are the only teams that rank top six in both goals scored and goals against at even strength.
This matchup has everything a diehard or casual fan could want.
There are box office stars at forward, headlined by David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand on the Bruins. Pastrnak is third in the league in points (73) and goals (33). Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser all have scored more than 20 goals for the Canucks.
This game also features two of the best American-born defensemen. Charlie McAvoy has finished top five in Norris Trophy voting twice. Quinn Hughes is having a career season and could win that award this year. He leads all d-men with 64 points in 50 games.
These teams have two of the top American goalies as well. Thatcher Demko leads the league in wins. Jeremy Swayman ranks fourth in save percentage. All four of these players could play important roles for the United States at the 2026 Winter Olympics.
The Bruins-Canucks rivalry will never again be what it was in 2011 and 2012. It's not often we see two cities, two fanbases and so many players who have that much animosity toward each other, and not be shy about expressing it. The rivalry was wildly entertaining.
But that doesn't mean we won't see a great matchup Thursday night. Both teams have a lot to prove. Both teams want to make a statement to the rest of the league. Both teams know how badly their fans want this game.
And who knows, maybe we'll see this matchup again in the Stanley Cup Final in June.