The NHL couldn’t have picked a much better matchup for Monday’s Winter Classic. The NHL-leading Boston Bruins against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that’s currently sixth in the Eastern Conference. Two teams that have been among the best in the NHL for well over a decade.
Arguably the best defensive forward of all time in Patrice Bergeron vs. one of the best offensive and all-around players of all time in Sidney Crosby. Plenty of stars beyond that with the likes of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and (if he's cleared to play) Kris Letang.
It’s a matchup the NHL probably wishes had more national showcases like this. Despite being in the same conference and both being so good and so consistent for so long, the Bergeron-era Bruins and Crosby-era Penguins have only met once in the playoffs: a four-game Boston sweep in the conference finals back in 2013.
At that time, it was very much a rivalry, and a heated one at that. The Penguins still had Matt Cooke, who had already cemented his status as an all-time Boston sports villain with a blindside hit to the head that essentially ended Marc Savard’s career in 2010.
There was also the Jarome Iginla trade deadline fiasco that year. The Bruins reportedly had a deal in place to acquire the future Hall of Famer, only for Iginla to block it at the last minute and force Calgary to send him to the Penguins instead.
The Bruins got the last laugh in 2013, but the Penguins ultimately got back to hockey’s mountaintop first, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. They didn’t have to go through the Bruins during either of those runs, because the Bruins were in the middle of a retool that saw them change general managers, change head coaches, miss the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, and get bounced in the first round in 2017.
By the time the Bruins were ready to make a deep run again -- in 2019 -- the Penguins’ own downswing was underway. They lost in the first round that year, and haven’t made it any further since. With the NHL’s playoff format now set up for divisional matchups for the first two rounds (other than wild-card teams), a first-round Bruins-Penguins matchup has been unlikely, and in fact has not happened.
“Yeah, it is [odd],” David Krejci said Sunday. “But also with the last few years, the way we play the divisions, the wild card, it’s tough to kind of get those teams from different divisions. So, you have to make it far. They have to make it far. But yeah, it’s still kind of bizarre we’ve only played them once in so many years that I’ve been here.”
The fact that they haven’t met the Penguins more often is OK by Marchand.
“I’d say I’m probably happy to not match up against them too often,” he said. “They have a ton of experience, a lot of winners on that team that know how to compete and come up big at the right time. They’ve been very competitive for a long time, won a few Cups. That’s a dangerous team when it comes to playoff time, so I’d prefer not to match up against them.”
In fact, Marchand has as many big-game memories playing with Crosby as against him, and Bergeron’s history with Crosby goes back even further than Marchand’s. The two were linemates with Crosby during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and they were dominant en route to winning gold for Canada. Crosby led the tournament in scoring, Marchand was second, and Bergeron was third. Bergeron and Crosby were also linemates when they won Olympic gold in 2014 and World Junior gold in 2005, and they were teammates on Canada’s 2010 Olympic gold medal team as well.
Given all that, it’s no surprise that there’s more mutual respect than animosity between the two sides nowadays.
“It’s a great relationship obviously,” Bergeron said of his history with Crosby. “Lots of respect for him and who he is as a person, first and foremost, and as a player obviously. Everything he’s been able to accomplish, but also the way that he’s done it and the way that he’s represented the league and us players over the years is pretty special. Kudos to him for always trying to do the right thing, and most often doing the right thing.
“I think we have a good relationship. I can’t say we’re best friends by any means, but that being said, we text each other once in a while. It’s always nice to catch up. We’ve been part of many successful teams internationally. It’s been a lot of fun. Some great memories for myself.”
The admiration is reciprocated.
“He’s a great leader, great person,” Crosby said of Bergeron. “I remember I was his roommate at World Juniors when I was 17 and he had half a year under his belt in the NHL. Just a great guy, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play with him over the years at different points. It’s always a big challenge playing against him.”
Crosby and Marchand, both natives of Nova Scotia, skate together often during the offseason. Crosby said he enjoys his time skating with Marchand a lot more than his time lining up against him.
“Awesome to play with, and not somebody you want to play against,” he said of Marchand. “We skate together all summer, so I see a lot of Marchy. I see how hard he works. He’s somebody who’s found a way to get better each and every year. But he plays with a certain intensity. Like I said, that’s somebody that you want on your team, but he’s tough to play against. I’ve had a lot of fun playing with him and not as much playing against him.”
Perhaps there is still time for another playoff meeting between the Bruins and Penguins before Bergeron and Crosby hang up their skates. If not, they’ll at least get a moment in the spotlight Monday afternoon at Fenway Park.
Tune in to WEEI's Classic Broadcast featuring Gresh, Raycroft and Milbury from Time Out Market Monday from 10AM-2PM! Click here for more information.