WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens battle firecely no matter what's at stake, but first place in the Northeast Division is up for grabs when the puck drops Saturday night at Bell Centre in Montreal. The Canadiens (24-8-5) are currently atop the standings with 53 points, while the Bruins (24-8-4) follow with 52 points.
This will be the rivals' fourth and final regular-season matchup and could be a precursor for a possible meeting in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which, as always, would be an incredible and entertaining series if it happens.
"It doesn't get any more real than us and the Canadiens," said Bruins forward Shawn Thornton. "There's a legit dislike for each other."
Montreal has won twice this season, the most recent being a 6-5 shootout victory on March 27 at TD Garden. Boston's lone triumph, a 2-1 win, came in Montreal on Feb. 6. All four times these teams have played this season, first place has been the top prize.
With only 12 games remaining in the regular season for the Bruins, first place in the division will come down to the wire because both teams are playing well. Boston's in the midst of a three-game winning streak and appears to be on the upswing after struggling recently.
Even though both Boston and Montreal are among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, this rivalry never disappoints.
"It's pretty intense whether one team's great or one team isn't," Thornton said. "My first year here [2007-2008], we barely squeaked into eighth and they were at the top, but the rivalry was pretty intense."
The Canadiens won that 2008 quarterfinal series in seven games.
"I knew about the rivalry being from Toronto, you hear about it," Thornton said. "You don't get the full experience of it until you're in the Boston community. That first playoff series my first year was the real wake-up call to how intense it really is. It was emotion like I've never seen before. It was pretty amazing."
Boston then swept Montreal in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. In 2011, the teams staged an epic postseason battle with the Bruins winning the quarterfinal series in seven games en route to a Stanley Cup championship.
Saturday's game will have a playoff intensity to it.
"Obviously now we're battling for the top spot, but I don't think that adds to the emotion of it. It probably makes it more exciting for people to watch, but the emotion is there no matter what spot of the standings we're in," Thornton said. "I enjoy it. I love playing against these guys. I've said it before: If you can't get up for these you're probably playing the wrong sport."
After the Bruins conducted practice Friday at Ristuccia Arena in preparation for this game, Boston players appeared focused before their charter flight to Montreal.
"Right now it makes it so much more exciting because every time we seem to play each other, it's for first place in the division and it really means a lot," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand. "Obviously, the rivalry goes back a very long time and when both teams are doing very well it makes it more exciting."
It could be a toss-up between Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and Marchand for the most hated player by Montreal fans. Every time Chara touches the puck in Montreal, the Bell Centre fans boo. Marchand is considered a gnat, and he thrives on that role as agitator.
"I think everyone steps up their game in that way," Marchand said. "It seems like these games are a little chippy and a little physical and guys are always on each other. It definitely makes you raise your game up a little bit more. It seems like it gets a little more heated every time we play them."
While the majority of the current Bruins roster know all too well what this rivalry means, there are some newcomers that will have their first taste of it on Saturday.
Prior to signing with the Dallas Stars as a free agent last July, newly acquired Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr was interested in playing for the Canadiens, only because he wanted to experience what it would be like to play for a Canadian team in the NHL, which is something he hasn't done yet.
"[Montreal] went in a different direction and that's OK," he said. "I felt like Canada lives more for hockey and I wanted to try that at the end of my career and how is it to play in Canada."
The now 41-year-old future Hall of Famer has played for six teams, including Pittsburgh, Washington, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Dallas and Boston. Jagr remembers what the Penguins-Flyers rivalry is like, but he doesn't know what to expect when he takes the ice in Montreal on Saturday.
"I'll have to wait and see and tell you after the game," he said with a laugh. "I don't like to be too high or too low, so I don't think it would help my game. I like to control myself no matter who I play against."
"Oh, it's going to be fun," Daugavins said. "I watched the game before when they played last time, and it's a big battle. It's the most fun type of game you like to play. Every second you spend on the ice it's like a war, and for a hockey player it's more fun than just having a shinny game out there."
The Bruins also added veteran defenseman Wade Redden at the trade deadline this week, and even though he spent the majority of his career with the Ottawa Senators, he's also looking forward to experiencing this rivalry.
"I've watched it for years and it's two tops teams in the division right now, battling it out and there's a lot on the line. It just adds to the tradition that's there already," Redden said. "You won't get any bigger rivalry than this right here, that's for sure."