BOSTON -- The Hartford Whalers always wanted a rivalry with the Boston Bruins -- on Thursday night they can start to build one.
The NHL's New England neighbors face each other in the Adams Division semifinal, their first-ever post-season meeting.
'For the last two months, Hartford has been saying 'We want Boston,'' said Bruins Coach Mike Milbury. 'It's going to be a very big series for them -- an emotional series.'
'The Bruins, being so close, are the team we've always wanted to beat the most,' said Hartford's Ray Ferraro.
The Whalers are one of the league's many expansion teams, coming to the NHL from the WHA in 1979. The Bruins, by comparison, were established in 1924, when the NHL was a six-team league. Their great nemesis was Montreal, which has won 21 of 24 playoff series with Boston, including 18 in a row between 1943 and 1987.
'Rivalries are made out of great playoff series,' said Boston's Ray Bourque. 'This (Boston-Hartford) will probably become the rivalry a lot of people have been waiting for. But until you have that feeling in the playoffs, when certain teams have been knocked out, it's tough to establish the rivalry.'
'They've been in the league 11 years and played us tough all the time,' he said. 'But I can't say it's been like Montreal or what Buffalo has established over the last few years.'
This season, Hartford was fourth in the Adams Division while Boston was first, compiling the league's best record at 46-25-9. But the Whalers were 3-4-1 against Boston, winning twice at Boston Garden.
'They are formidable opponents,' said Milbury. 'They work hard and forecheck well. They take the body and try to cause turnovers. They have some premier forwards -- (Ron) Francis, (Pat) Verbeek, and (Kevin) Dineen. They are among the top forwards in the NHL. They've also got their share of grinding wingers.'
For Boston, it will be important to keep its top forward, Cam Neely, on the ice. The volatile winger, who admits it is hard for him to 'turn the other cheek,' reduced his penalty minutes from 190 last season to 117. This is one reason for his career-high 55 goals.
'It seems like his fighting is way down and his goals are way up,' said Ferraro. 'Obviously, that's what he's been instructed to do.
'I played junior hockey with Cam and he's a great goal scorer. He has tremendous hands and he's so bloody strong, he won't be denied in front of the goal,' said Ferraro.
Neely said that controlling his temper has been a season-long objective.
'I have to be careful and try not to get off the ice in situations where it's going to hurt our hockey club,' he said. 'At times, it's been tough. But for the most part, I've been able to control it pretty well.'
Boston center Craig Janney has an injured shoulder and it is not known how long he will be out. Colgate's Joel Gardner, whose team was runnerup in the NCAA tournament, worked out with the Bruins but has not been offered a contract. He will not join the team for either Thursday's or Saturday's games, said a Bruins official. Gardner, who received a surprise invitation to practice Tuesday with the Bruins, is getting married on Saturday.