During their 38 NHL seasons, the Capitals have competed in the Norris, Atlantic and Southeast Divisions. But the years that defined the franchise before the current Alex Ovechkin-led era took place in the Patrick Division, a grouping of six teams bound by geography and bad blood fueled by constant contests and annual playoff series battles.
From the fall of 1982 through the spring of 1993, Washington regularly went at it with New Jersey, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Caps, who had never reached postseason before the sextet came together, never missed it during those 11 years.
This season, after 14 years in the Southeast Division in which the rivalries never blossomed except for one with Tampa Bay, Washington is back in the Patrick (plus two) Division, now called the Metropolitan. In the NHL’s new four-division setup, the Caps will compete with the Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Carolina and Columbus for four berths in the intra-divisional playoffs. The survivor will move on to the Eastern Conference finals, a series from playing for the Stanley Cup.
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Caps general manager George McPhee, who played parts of six seasons for the Rangers and Devils in the 1980s. “It should be great. They’re our natural rivals. I remember playing the Islanders and you’re standing for the national anthem and everyone [in the stands] is going nuts for a regular season game. You’re excited to play, but a little nervous, too. It’s neat when you get the rivalry going like that. We’re in the right place now, the right division.”
That’s true from travel and philosophical viewpoints, but the players know their jobs got tougher even though they’ll play the old Patrick teams just twice more (22 vs. 20) than they did during the last full NHL season, 2011-12. While Washington was the Southeast’s only playoff team last year, Pittsburgh, the Rangers and the Islanders all qualified. Columbus just missed the cut in the Western Conference.
“It’s going to be very, very tough for us, but at the same time, maybe keep us a little more prepared, knowing what to expect coming into the playoffs,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “I think it’s going to keep the team really honest for all 82 games. We’re definitely not going to be able to sneak in like we did last year.”
In other words, they almost surely won’t be able to remain below .500 until three quarters of the way through the season and still make the playoffs, let alone finish on top of their division.
“We’ve gotta have a fast start,” said left wing Troy Brouwer, the only Cap who has hoisted the Cup which he did with Chicago in 2010. “We don’t want to be playing catch up. With eight teams in our division, there’s a lot more room to miss the playoffs. This team has not been deep into the playoffs in quite a few years and that’s our goal, to win a Stanley Cup. But it starts with playing well, trying to win our division and put ourselves in a good spot for the playoffs.”
Defenseman Mike Green called the move from the disbanded Southeast “a bit of a curveball” for the Caps, who were used to soaking up the sun on their regular trips to Florida while also racking up the points en route to five division titles (and one second place finish, good enough for a playoff spot) during the past six seasons.
Alzner, who grew up watching in British Columbia watching such longstanding rivalries as Calgary-Edmonton and Montreal-Toronto, is also excited about the move to the Metropolitan Division and not because of the quality of Washington’s regular foes.
“A rivalry game, there’s nothing better,” Alzner said. “When we play Pittsburgh and the Rangers, those [games] are always a lot of fun. I look forward to those and I think the fans do, too. They’re usually more intense. We’ve gotta kinda let that brew throughout the season and come playoffs, it will be even more intense.”
That was certainly the case when the Caps dueled so many springs with the Islanders in the 1980s and the Penguins in the 1990s. Washington and the Rangers developed some of that bitterness in recent years by facing each other in the playoffs in four of the past five years thanks to the seedings. Now, teams are guaranteed of skating against their biggest rivals in their first two postseason series
“It’s good for league, for fans and for us as well,” Ovechkin said. “Every game is going to be very important. It’s the hardest division in the league.”
Washington was 8-10-2 against its new division rivals compared to a 15-3 mark against Southeast foes during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
“You want to play good teams,” said center Nicklas Backstrom. “It’s always fun to play those kind of games.”
Have fun, boys.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.