LAS VEGAS — Joe Thornton had for years been a part of the Boston Bruins’ storied rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens, and has dressed for countless games against both the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks in his 14-plus seasons with the Sharks.
Right now, though, no rivalry for the Sharks quite compares to playing the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I always thought that L.A. was probably going to be their big rival, or Anaheim,” Thornton said of the Golden Knights. “But no, it’s us.”
Everyone knows it, too, as meetings between the Sharks and Golden Knights carry with them a special kind of buzz, the kind that’s often lacking throughout the NHL right now.
Over the last two plus seasons, after 10 regular season games and two epic playoff series, the Sharks and Golden Knights — in their own words — have developed a hatred for one another.
There’s been trash talk between the players and animosity between the coaches. There’s been game misconducts and suspensions, overtime thrillers and blowouts.
It’s almost always been entertaining, which, as long as they sell tickets and show games on television, will be the bottom line.
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It wasn’t an accident, for instance, that NBC Sports put the two teams on national television to start the season. Nor was it happenstance that the NHL scheduled the Sharks and Golden Knights to play each other three times in less than a week — once at the end of the preseason on Sept. 29, followed by regular season meetings Oct. 2 and 4.
Before Thursday’s meeting at T-Mobile Arena, the Sharks — including playoffs — were 9-13-1 all-time against the Golden Knights. Prior to this season began, they had combined for 137 goals, and 642 penalty minutes, in 21 games.
“It’s got to be,” said Sharks goalie Aaron Dell, who started Thursday’s game, “one of the best (rivalries) in sports right now.”
While the Kings and Ducks each changed coaches and took a step back during the 2018-19 season, perhaps lessening the animosity with their Northern California counterparts, every game the Sharks had with the Golden Knights last season had significance.
None moreso than Game 7 of their first round series on April 23 — perhaps the greatest NHL game ever held in San Jose.
“Back home, you don’t realize how many people watch, especially come playoff time,” said forward Barclay Goodrow, who scored the winner in overtime of the deciding game.
“Definitely heard about it a lot in the summer. It was pretty fun to relive that moment.”
For any rivalry to really take off, though, you need personalities.
Perhaps none are bigger on each team than the Sharks’ Evander Kane and the Golden Knights’ Ryan Reaves.
Aside from perhaps the ongoing feud between Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty, there is no beef between players spicier than the one between Kane and Reaves.
They’ve gone at it on the ice, through the press and on social media. Last year’s war of words between the two during the playoffs reached epic levels, even after they fought in Game 3.
“For being the toughest guy in the league, I don’t know if he landed a punch,” Kane said before Game 4. “At times, I thought I was fighting the muffin man.”
Reaves said after Game 3 that he had been waiting for the fight for nine years, a point he reiterated when he sat down for a postgame interview Nov. 2 on Hockey Night in Canada.
“It might be longer than nine years — we didn’t like each other in junior,” Reaves said.
Kane jumped on that comment, posting on his official Twitter account that, writing, “Bud lol @reavo7five maybe one to many hits to the head? You never played a single game against me in @TheWHL believe me. Have to start calling you Mr. Rodgers for all this “make believe” you spit.”
Bud lol @reavo7five maybe one to many hits to the head? You never played a single game against me in @TheWHL believe me. Have to start calling you Mr. Rodgers for all this “make believe” you spit pic.twitter.com/MHfMcHx14p
— Evander Kane (@evanderkane_9) November 3, 2019
Asked about the tweet by this newspaper the following day, Kane did not wish to elaborate, saying he had already given Reaves enough publicity.
Reaves was asked on Hockey Night how much he enjoys the back-and-forth with Kane.
“I love it,” Reaves said. “I like watching that stuff in other sports — there’s not a lot of it in hockey. I love the hatred in sports, it makes it a little more interesting. I wish there was a little more in hockey to be honest.”
Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said he enjoys the rivalry with the Golden Knights — up to a point. That point would be when one of his leading scorers in Kane sits too often in the penalty box, is kicked out of games, or is suspended for his actions on the ice surface at T-Mobile Arena.
“We need his physicality, I need him engaged in the game like he always is,” DeBoer said. “He’s one guy that isn’t intimidated by buildings or teams, and he drags other people into the battle with him, which is a great characteristic.
“But he can’t sit for 10 of 20 minutes in the penalty box tonight.”
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Kane was bound to be razzed by Golden Knights fans Thursday night, especially after a report by the Las Vegas Review-Journal said that he was being sued by The Cosmopolitan hotel for $500,000 for unpaid gambling markers.
Fans are no doubt a huge part of the rivalry, with the close proximity between the two cities and thousands of Californians now calling Las Vegas home. T-Mobile Arena has to be loudest rink in the NHL right now. SAP Center used to have that distinction, and can still get there for special occasions
A popular t-shirt among Sharks fans is one that has the score of Game 7 from April’s playoff series. The front displays the score with 10:41 left in the third period — 3-0 Vegas.
The back has the final score — 5-4 Sharks.
“I think it’s one of the best (rivalries) in the NHL,” Thornton said. “It’s brand new, the games are always fun, they’re always filled with excitement. It’s a brand new rivalry, but it’s extremely intense out there.”