The NHL took it back outside earlier this week with a pair of games. Sunday’s Centennial Classic and Monday’s Winter Classic brought the total number of regular season outdoor games in league history to 21, with one more to come this season.
This year’s list includes some history, as Sunday’s Red Wings/Maple Leafs pairing became the first ever outdoor rematch, repeating the 2014 Winter Classic matchup. That makes some sense, since Toronto and Detroit are the kind of longtime rivals that the league seems to like to feature in these games. We’ll get Flyers vs. Penguins later this year, and we’ve already had rivalry showdowns like Habs vs. Bruins, Rangers vs. Islanders, Wings vs. Avalanche, and Blackhawks vs. pretty much everyone.
In fact, given that the league is already recycling matchups, you might assume that all the best rivalries have already been done. But that’s not quite true. So today, let’s look ahead at the best five rivalry matchups that we’ve yet to see in the great outdoors.
5. Stars vs. Wild
A good rivalry needs some bad blood and a good dose of history. Well, what works better than “You stole our franchise”? Having the new Stars head back to Minnesota to face city they abandoned over 20 years ago seems like a natural fit.
According to the rumor mill, we nearly got this matchup last year, when the Wild made their outdoor debut. The league wanted Dallas in the game, the story goes, but ownership preferred Chicago. So instead, we got the somewhat odd sight of the new and old Stars combining into one alumni team as the Blackhawks got yet another turn in the outdoor spotlight.
Business is business, and it’s hard to deny that the Hawks are the league’s marquee team right now. But a Wild/Stars matchup would be a good one, not to mention a rematch of last year’s opening round (and quite possibly this year’s as well). Mix in the fact that the Stars are one of the league’s most entertaining teams and the Wild are one of this year’s biggest stories, and you’ve got yourself a nice little matchup.
4. Blue Jackets vs. Penguins
OK, let’s be honest – this is one of those NHL rivalries that kind of flows in only one direction. Columbus considers the Penguins a rival. But ask a Pittsburgh fan about their top rivalry, and they’ll answer with the Flyers, or maybe the Caps or Rangers. The Blue Jackets don’t really register… yet.
But that “yet” is the key word, because it feels like we might be on the verge of something here. With the two teams fighting for top spot in the Metro, a playoff showdown seems like a definite possibility. And unlike their 2014 Round 1 meeting, in which the underdog Blue Jackets won their first two postseason games ever before bowing out to the heavily favored Penguins, this one would feel like a marquee matchup.
Columbus is one of the eight teams that’s never been invited to play in an outdoor game, and as recently as a few months ago it seemed unlikely that they would be anytime soon. But that was before they transformed into the 1977 Canadiens on steroids, and now they’re one of the league’s most talked about teams. Having them face off against the Penguins – maybe even at the 100,000-seat Ohio Stadium – suddenly seems like an idea worth considering.
3. Ducks vs. Sharks
The three-way Battle of California has been one of the league’s best rivalries over the years, and we’ve already seen two iterations take place outdoors. Why not complete the trilogy?
Granted, the logistics here could be a little tough. The Kings have hosted the Ducks and the Sharks have hosted the Kings, so in theory you’d want to close the loop by having the Ducks host the Sharks. We know the league can make outdoor games work in California, but Anaheim is short of prime locations. Would Angels Stadium be considered good enough? I think it could be.
You can understand the league’s reluctance to go back to California too quickly after doing it in back-to-back years, so maybe we file this one away for now. But it would be nice to see someday, especially when the two teams are fighting for Pacific Division supremacy.
2. Flames vs. Oilers
Let’s be honest: It’s a little weird we haven’t done this one already, right? The two teams have combined for three outdoor games between them, yet none of them have featured the Battle of Alberta, unquestionably one the greatest all-time rivalries in NHL history. Instead, we’ve had two appearances by the Canadiens, and one earlier this year by the Jets.
And maybe there’s a good reason for that. After all, you’d prefer to have a game featuring at least one contender, and neither of these two teams has spent much time in that category during the outdoor era. But we’re headed in that direction, and could even get a playoff matchup between the two teams this year. That would be a good start to rekindling the rivalry, and a Heritage Classic would be the logical next step.
1. Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs
Let’s face it, this is an obvious pick for No. 1. The Leafs and Habs are probably the sport’s most famous rivalry, and even if it hasn’t burned as brightly for most of the current generation, there’s just too much history here to ignore.
Of course, we know why we haven’t seen this matchup yet: Neither team has a worthy venue. The Maple Leafs just hosted their first outdoor game on Sunday, and while BMO Field (er, sorry, “Exhibition Stadium”) did a fine job, it won’t knock the Big House or Fenway Park out of any “best venue ever” discussions. And Montreal hasn’t hosted at all, because there’s really nowhere to put a game.
That lack of a venue is no small issue, and it might keep fans from seeing this matchup for a while. But eventually, somebody will get creative, either with a temporary location or even a neutral site. Or maybe we’ll just decide that BMO will be good enough. Either way, this game will happen someday; here’s hoping we can get it when Auston Matthews and Carey Price are both in their primes.
I wanted to limit the main list to one appearance per team, but let’s take a second to recognize how much fun a Sabres vs. Maple Leafs matchup could be. With both teams coming out of rebuilds, it won’t be long before that rivalry is one of the league’s best. Between Matthews vs. Eichel, Nylander vs. Nylander, and Babcock vs. Not Babcock, the stories write themselves. Mix in how loud games between these two teams can get even when both teams are bad, and you’ve got a can’t miss. Put the whole thing in New Era Field (formerly Ralph Wilson Stadium), site of the original Winter Classic, and watch Leaf fans flood across the border to pack the place.
A few other matchups that could make a strong case for a spot on the list: Blues vs. Red Wings; Rangers vs. Capitals; Sabres vs. Bruins; Leafs vs. Senators; Penguins vs. Islanders; Panthers vs. Lightning; Kings vs Blackhawks.
(Oh, and one more to add to the list in a few more years: Canadiens vs. Nordiques.)
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.