Such were the cacophonous and telltale chants of a suddenly heated rivalry that echoed through Joe Louis Arena Thursday night and continued to reverberate loudly Friday, as the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins contested arguably the best regular season game in the NHL this season.
Outside Winter Classic games, has there been a better regular season game for either team? You’d be hard pressed to find one. For Detroit, you’d probably have to go back to March 26, 1997. That was, of course, the date of “Fight night at the Joe” and Darren McCarty’s revenge on Claude Lemieux and the Colorado Avalanche. Consequently, that was also Detroit’s last major heated hockey rival.
Thursday, the Red Wings came out hot, netting the first two goals and taking the play to the passive Penguins, who seemed to be startled by Detroit’s intensity and desire. In the stands, a tidal wave of excitement enveloped the scores of Penguin fans who had made the trip to watch their team.
Then, the narrative shifted quickly. Suddenly, the Red Wings were the ones getting pushed around after the Penguins tied the game. The Pittsburgh fans were the ones cheering for their team, and after a few calls went the other way, the Penguins took the lead and appeared to seize all the momentum.
However, the ebb and flow quickly shifted back to the home team. As Sidney Crosby melted down to the referees and the fans got on him, the Penguins got a bit rattled. With the fans urging them on, the Red Wings tied the game and later took the lead. Pittsburgh, of course, squared things up again and had their chance to win late in regulation and in overtime after a careless penalty by David Legwand. Detroit killed that off, and won a hockey game that so happened to coincide with the first day of March Madness with a beautiful buzzer beater by Daniel Alfredsson.
From the back-and-forth of passionate fans cheering their team to the high level of skill on the ice, it’s clear with Detroit’s move east that Pittsburgh is the team’s new preeminent rival. Lest anyone forget about the back to back Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009 the teams contested. From that, it seems plenty of frustration and discontent on both sides was born. Now that the teams will play more, this past history along with close proximity means an exciting rivalry is guaranteed.
In addition to netting the Red Wings a vital two points, Thursday’s game provided a tantalizing preview of what could come in April. Should the teams meet in the playoffs, a wildly entertaining series would likely be promised, with Detroit playing a role they’re unused to as the determined, scrappy underdog. It’s a role that seems to suit their young stars just fine. Now that they know they can beat the Penguins while depleted at every position, a later more healthy encounter could prove delicious.
Not often does a regular season game in late March have the potential to reverberate, but considering the noise as well as the implications, the Red Wings and Penguins’ memorable Thursday contest could help usher in the next great chapter in an ever-evolving rivalry.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax