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Fab Foes

As rivalries raise the playoff heat, the league should ensure that spring hockey always burns like this

April is a timefor young love, tax deadlines and the Boston Bruins meeting the MontrealCanadiens in the playoffs. Now in a remarkable 32nd revival, Bruins-Canadiens,which commenced 80 years ago, is the granddaddy of playoff rivalries—assumingyour grandfather is a grumpy guy who keeps trying to stick a smelly glove inyour face the way Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek and Bruins rookie MattHunwick did to each other during a scrum at the end of Game 1. Hunwick emergedwith a discolored eyelid and nasty scratches around his right eye, which provedto be the least of his worries—he was taken by ambulance for a splenectomy lastSaturday, hours before the Bruins went up two games to none in the series witha 5--1 win. This is one of those series that, as your mother once warned, canpoke an eye out. Or worse.

Serendipitously,the NHL yielded three other first-round intradivisional series: SanJose--Anaheim, Detroit-Columbus and Pittsburgh-Philadelphia. Those matchupshave had the opportunity to marinate in the bile of six regular-season gamesand cook up quite nicely in the spring. While familiarity with an opponentmight wear on a player's nerves—"We know each other so well, we probably[recognize] each other's cologne," Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward says of theCanadiens—cities get energized by a series that is rich in backstory. (Penguinscenter Evgeni Malkin's ongoing battle against the physical Flyers, say.)

"The firstand obviously the fourth round [of the playoffs] are the best," Montrealassistant Kirk Muller says. "First round, everybody's fresh. Add in anatural rivalry in the first round, wow. I started [as a Devils player] in theold Patrick Division, and there was nothing like a New Jersey--New York Rangersseries. Your fans hated the other team. We've got to find a way to do that[again] soon."

Before 1993--94,when the league expanded from 24 to 26 teams and adopted conferencewideseeding, the NHL produced riveting playoffs with teams playing two rounds toget out of their divisions: the brutal (Chuck) Norris Division in theheartland; the Smythe's Battles of Alberta; the truly scary Adams family, whichincluded Boston, Montreal and Quebec; and the Patrick nastiness. "Gettingout of your division felt like you had won the Stanley Cup," Montreal G.M.and interim coach Bob Gainey says.

"Imagine ifWashington and Carolina faced each other in the playoffs pretty much everyyear," says Bruins VP Cam Neely of the Southeast adversaries. "A goodhatred would evolve. Then their regular-season games would become must-sees.Divisional playoffs build rivalries."

The first roundis already the best two weeks of the hockey calendar. By resurrectingdivisional playoffs the NHL could make it even better.

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CHIN UP The grappling between Montreal's Mathieu Schneider and Boston's Chuck Kobasew (12) follows an honored tradition.