This week, the National Hockey League announced a formatting change: Starting next season, the league will be split into four conferences — really just super-sized divisions — with the top four teams from each meeting in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Widely lauded, the format will result in regular-season rivalries spilling into the playoffs and then carrying over to the next season. But it does mark the end of those bizarre intersectional rivalries the existing playoff format creates.
The NHL playoffs are a forge.
Playing a team seven times in two weeks in the intensity of the postseason sharpens the edges to a dangerous, steely point not dulled when the series — or the season — is over.
The Nashville Predators' tough rivalries with the Auld Enemies of the Central Division — Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago — seem almost polite by comparison to the burgeoning feud with Anaheim, a battle-born beef still boiling after the Predators knocked the Ducks out of the playoffs last season.
It was a tough six games. Former Ducks coach Randy Carlyle accused the Predators of diving — one of the ultimate insults in the macho world of hockey. Duck Bobby Ryan stomped the skate of Predator Jon Blum. The Preds' Game Five comeback — a legendary win that made the clincher in Game Six at Bridgestone Arena a virtual certainty — left the Ducks tasting rue leaves.
The war of words fired up again this season. It is clear now that the post-series handshake didn't put a stop to the hostilities.
Anaheim forward and future Rogaine spokesman Ryan Getzlaf called out Preds' fireplug Jordin Tootoo, saying the NHL should "get guys like that off the ice." Barry Trotz responded that the Ducks should stop whining to the press and settle things on the rink.
There's bad blood — and there's blood that's gone rancid. The third round of the rematch comes to Fifth & Broad Saturday night.
Trotz shows a shadow of a smile when he talks about the Ducks. "When you play a team six or seven times, it's hard to let things go," he says. "There's a lot of crap in the playoffs. There's extra liberties that are taken. Guys are yapping." That could be taken negatively, but there's a sense Trotz loves this sort of thing.
In the regular season, teams will play, at most, six times. In the playoffs, teams can play at least that much in two weeks. Instead of six regular-season months sipping from a single barrel, the entire bottle of rotgut is downed in one angry gulp.
"It leaves a bitter taste," Trotz says. "It's like having an argument with your neighbor. It gets bitter."
For Predators fans, that bitterness has a face, a sniveling, snide-faced mug shot smugly staring back from the sports page of The Orange County Register: columnist Jeff Miller.
Miller got the ball rolling during the playoff round with a particularly uninspired "Guide to Nashville." Guess what? There's country music here, y'all! And we all talk really slowly and nobody has shoes.
It was full of pokes so obvious and lazy any 12-year-old with a rhyming dictionary and access to Google would have seemed like Dorothy Parker by comparison.
Miller, still obviously reeling from his team's failures, tried again on the Predators' first trip this season, referring repeatedly to the team as the "Hicksville Hee Haws." Surely his truly great material on cockfighting, the Confederate flag and rhinestones was cut for space.
While he lacks cleverness, Miller is a fantastic homer — or at the very least, still upset because someone in Nashville stole his prom date. Miller, by the way, did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Scene. Perhaps he was rendered catatonic upon discovering Nashville had Internet access.
The fact is, characters like Miller are needed for rivalries to take the step from simply nasty to bellicose and vicious. While his work in itself won't be immortalized as a classic of the American corpus, it serves its purpose.
What Ryan, Getzlaf and their line mate Corey Perry (perhaps the most hated of the troika) are on the ice, Miller is off it. Enemies are easily made when they are drawn with broad strokes. If Miller wants to portray Predators fans as Skoal-spitting hayseeds, those same fans are happy to cast Miller as the face of California provincialism: a man unable to see beyond the glare from the sheen of the plastic O.C. culture.
The fact is the Ducks and Preds were made for each other, with coaches not afraid to let the verbal shots fly — Carlyle was recently replaced by former Washington Capitals boss Bruce Boudreau, himself a champion curser — just as their teams aren't afraid to "take liberties," as Trotz puts it.
Under the NHL's new plan, the teams will meet only twice a season (they play four times now) and won't be vying for the same pot of playoff spots. Maybe the vitriol will ease. For now, though, this one's still white-hot.
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