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Second playoff meeting will only fuel Knights-Sharks rivalry

Ah, the good ol’ days, when NHL rivalries were all nasty and bloody and so incredibly fun to watch: Philadelphia and Montreal were set to play Game 6 of the Prince of Wales Conference final back in May of 1987, and several Flyers players had ever-so-subtly warned Canadiens star Claude Lemieux not to shoot a puck at their empty net at the end of warmups.

They didn’t like Claude all that much.

So what did he do?

He and teammate Shayne Corson sneaked back out with a puck.

Corson shot into the Philadelphia net, and all hell broke loose.

I mean, we’re talking players from both teams streaming from locker rooms to join the fracas.

The players just went at.

It was the fight that changed hockey forever, marking the end of bench-clearing lunacy.

Which means you shouldn’t expect any such mania when the Golden Knights begin a best-of-seven series at San Jose on Wednesday.

“Once the playoffs start, the extracurricular stuff tends to wind down,” Knights forward Ryan Reaves said. “It’s the playoffs, and penalties can magnify things and cost you a series.”

That’s not to say the dislike that has grown between the teams in such a short time will lessen in any manner.

Assuredly, just the opposite.

“Obviously,” said Knights forward Alex Tuch, “we don’t like each other.”

Fourteen games total

Hockey rivalries are born and developed for different reasons. A specific on-ice incident. A cheap shot. Numerous fights. The playoffs.

One team (San Jose) trading for a certain generational player (Erik Karlsson) that another team (the Knights) from the same Pacific Division also coveted and pursued.

Of the three Western Conference opponents the Knights eliminated on their way to a Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team last year, San Jose extended things longest in a six-game series, one the Knights began with a 7-0 rout.

I know. It has only been two years and a total of 14 games, nine of which the Knights have won, with five of the matchups having reached overtime. In most respects, such a small sample wouldn’t come close to forming any kind of legitimate rivalry, especially in a sport with such historic ones.

Bruins-Canadiens and too many signature moments to count (ask Knights forward Max Pacioretty about the intensity of this one). Oilers-Flames and the Battle of Alberta. Canadiens-Maple Leafs anytime, anywhere, but especially on Saturday night. Flyers-Penguins and Sidney Crosby’s disdain for all things Philadelphia. Blackhawks-Blues and the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre. Colorado-Detroit and, well, hello Claude Lemieux there, too.

Rangers-Islanders. Ducks-Kings. Kings-Sharks. Bruins-Maple Leafs.

Any meeting between Original Six teams.

“You know what, San Jose has a real good hockey team,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “I thought last year was an outstanding playoff matchup. People look at San Jose, and a lot had them to win the Western Conference this year. Their talent level is that good. But people will also look at us and say that we got (winger) Mark Stone (at the trade deadline) and how we played at times over the last month and think we can win it again. We’re in that mix.

“You hear about Toronto playing Boston in an Eastern playoff series to start this year. This is that kind of series with us and San Jose. Rivalries are made in the playoffs. We’re probably still too young a franchise to have any real rivals, but to play them now two straight years in the playoffs, it helps. I think it’s going to be a hell of a series.”

If it’s anything like the final regular-season game between the two, he’s right.

The Sharks would win 4-3 in overtime at home, but not before 42 penalty minutes were served and fines assessed.

Reaves and Sharks veteran forward Joe Thornton were each docked $2,500 by the league, the former for high-sticking and Thornton for intentionally poking the butt end of his stick in Reaves’ neck, starting a skirmish that involved all 10 skaters on the ice.

“When you already know you’re going to play someone in the playoffs, you want to send a message, so things got a little chippy and physical and guys got in each other’s faces,” Reaves said. “That’s just the way things go. But some of the penalties that happened in that game — like what went on with Joe and I — don’t escalate in the playoffs.

“There is probably a scrum, but he probably doesn’t jam me in the neck and I don’t retaliate. We don’t have a lot of big guys but can still play a physical style. They’re obviously a big team that wants to do the same. I think it’s going to be a long series.”

All on the line

Things are just different in the NHL now.

Fewer enforcers, a lot more skill, gloves aren’t dropped as easily or as often. Teams see each other less over the regular season.

But when a best-of-seven begins and you’re staring at the same faces over the course of a few weeks, resentment can build.

This is high stakes stuff, man. Everything is on the line.

There is a good chance Knights-Sharks Part 2, sides so close in terms of ability, takes things one additional game this year and reaches a deciding No. 7 in San Jose.

Such a series would only enhance the rivalry.

It might not be the stuff of Lemieux sneaking back out after warmups, or could it?

The winger did end his playing career over an 18-game stint with San Jose after coming out retirement in 2009.

I suppose a few Knights should camp out near the ice just to make sure no such shenanigans are initiated.

“I see it as an exciting series for sure,” Tuch said. “There will be some moments of tension. When you play a team as many times over the course of two years and have similar styles, rivalries are going to develop.

“But you just want to win. You do whatever it takes to win each and every night. We’re ready to do that. To win in the playoffs, you have to have really good habits and play really good hockey, no matter who you’re facing.”

They’re facing the Sharks.

About as close to a rival as any second-year team could have.

More Golden Knights: Follow at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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