I have written about college rivalries before, but I wanted to take things up a notch by focusing on the professional level.
This past Tuesday, the Vegas Golden Knights and the San Jose Sharks faced off at the SAP Center in California, with the Golden Knights winning 4-2. Phil Kessel became the NHL’s new “Iron Man” after playing in his 990th consecutive game to officially pass Keith Yandle on the all-time list and celebrated the accomplishment with a goal. Down 2-1 after two periods, Vegas used three third period goals to snatch victory from defeat.
This will not be the last time these two teams will meet this season, as they have three more games against each other. Having observed the intensity these two teams bring during the game as well as some big moments in some of their previous meetings, one thing comes to mind: This is the NHL’s hottest rivalry. Although the two clubs have trended in opposite directions over the past few seasons, no love is lost when they hit the ice.
In order to analyze this rivalry, we have to start at the beginning. The beginning, in this case, is not one of their four regular-season meetings from the Golden Knights’ inaugural season in 2017-18, but the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After sweeping their first-round competition in four games, both teams were pitted against each other in the second round.
Vegas advanced to the Western Conference Finals in six games after multiple back-and-forth battles. The heat from that second-round series carried over into each of their regular season meetings in 2018-19, especially when the Sharks won in overtime in the regular season to grab home-ice advantage, but it boiled over during their seven-game first round series in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Entering Game 7, players and coaches on opposite benches had called each other out and San Jose had rallied down three games to one to force a winner-take-all. The reality of a completed comeback seemed bleak as the Sharks were down 3-0 after two periods, but then everything changed. Cody Eakin injured Joe Pavelski in the third period, getting assessed a five-minute major cross-checking penalty and a game misconduct — basically an ejection.
San Jose subsequently opened the floodgates, coming back and taking a 4-3 lead in a little over four minutes on the powerplay. The Golden Knights tied the game with 47 seconds left in regulation, but Barclay Goodrow put the series to rest with his tally late in the extra period in front of the crease. This is when the rivalry between the two West Coast teams became real.
The bad blood remained, even with both teams missing the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Entering a matchup at T-Mobile Arena on April 24, 2022, Vegas needed a win to improve their chances of qualifying for a playoff spot while the Sharks had already been eliminated. Everything went the Golden Knights’ way as they had a 4-2 lead with over 13 minutes remaining in regulation.
Vegas led for all but one second the rest of the way as Timo Meier capitalized on a scramble in front of the net for the equalizer to force overtime and Thomas Bordeleau’s shootout goal finished another San Jose comeback. Although that loss did not fully diminish the Knights’ chances of making the playoffs, it set up the pathway for them to be officially eliminated three days later.
But the games are just one aspect, as even head coaches have been involved in this rivalry’s young history. Peter DeBoer, the current head coach of the Dallas Stars, was the Sharks’ head coach when the Golden Knights joined the league in 2017. On Dec. 11, 2019, San Jose fired DeBoer after a rough start to its season and several playoff disappointments, including a Stanley Cup Finals loss. What makes this more interesting is that Gerard Gallant, Vegas’ first ever head coach, got the ax that same day after their slow start to the season and two years of playoff disappointments which also included a Stanley Cup Finals loss.
There were several options that the Golden Knights could have turned to for their second-ever head coach, but the rivalry must have played a part in their decision because they hired DeBoer to run the bench in January of 2020. During his three-season tenure, Vegas went to the semifinals two years in a row and beat the Sharks in the regular season all but once. This made San Jose fans angry because DeBoer most likely knew how to beat his former team, given his experience as their head coach.
Technology and social media have also played a pivotal part in keeping tensions high. Not long after the Sharks’ upset win, they trolled the Golden Knights with a rally cry on their jumbotron meant to get the fans on their feet, but it had a secret message that is hard to notice at first glance. This message, which spread across all forms of social media, serves as a firing shot for the next few years and multiple meetings to come, especially with both cities continuously growing in population and becoming hubs for technology.
What makes this series extra spicy is the fact that there is more intensity between both of these teams than some of the more historic rivalries with more chapters in their books. No other rivalry can match the modern feuds of the coaches or the use of social media to get in the opponent’s head. Even with both teams being in completely different directions, this series is far from over — there are still exciting matchups that will go down. When these two teams get together on the ice, especially when they are both competing for playoff spots, we all are in for an exciting 60 minutes of hockey.