SUNRISE, Fla. — Growing up a Washington Capitals fan, Jeff Halpern remembers the Patrick Division fondly. His most vivid memories are of Dale Hunter's series-winning overtime goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1988 and Pat Verbeek, then with the New Jersey Devils, slicing Rod Langway's leg with his skate just days later. And how "frustrating" series against the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the 1990s.
Those intense rivalries bred contempt among players and excitement among Caps fans, who have been yearning for a return to Patrick Division hockey for more than 10 years. Those days will be back next season, as radical NHL realignment approved Monday night will put the Capitals back with their old rivals in a format that will include heavy "conference" play in the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs.
"I think you're going to see a lot more intensity in the rivalries, not just in our division but in other peoples' divisions as well," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "It makes for a lot more exciting hockey, and any guy will tell you that if there's more to the hockey game than just a hockey game that you're more excited to play it."
In a four-conference format set to begin next season, the Capitals are grouped with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes. The revamped schedule will include home-and-home series with every out-of-conference opponent, meaning fans will get to see every team every year, but six games each season against division opponents will ratchet things up.
And the playoffs will feature two rounds of intraconference play — just like the old days — which means more chances for built-up hatred.
"It's going to be intense fighting for the playoffs," Halpern said. "Even though it's the same number of teams making the playoffs, it seems a little harder to get there fighting your own division all the time."
Since the Caps were thrown into the Southeast Division in 1999 with the Hurricanes, Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, talk has centered on lackluster rivalries and a shortage of intensity. That won't be a problem anymore.
"I've been wishing they went back to that for years," said Capitals color analyst Craig Laughlin, who played for Washington in the Patrick Division from 1982 to 1988. "I think it's going to create — it's not rivalries — I think it's tradition. The Caps were getting better in the '80s, and that was tradition because you always had to battle Philadelphia, the Rangers — those teams. So I think it's great."
Great for fans, too. Robin Taylor, 30, of the District, and her husband, Pete Kuszmaul, have had season tickets since 2008-09. Taylor said she has to sell one playoff game each round to make up for rising costs but noted that "Trying to sell that first game for Tampa last year was like pulling teeth" — much harder than unloading first-round seats against the Rangers.
Taylor and Kuszmaul were considering giving up their season tickets after this season, but realignment has changed that. More rivalry games will help other season-ticket holders in various ways.
"Those games that they're going to play against their rivals, those are some of the most fun games to go to all year. And the games I can't make it to, the tickets are going to be really easy to sell," said Philip Davis, 31, of Catonsville, Md., a season-ticket holder since '08-09. "I've had lots of trouble with weekday game tickets against Florida and Tampa Bay — they don't really sell that well. But the Rangers and the Flyers and the Penguins, it's going to be great to have those rivalries back so often and to go to those games."
From the players' perspective, more conference games closer to home will help, though an increase in travel to play every team in the league once likely offsets the gain. The Caps had the fourth- or fifth-easiest travel among NHL teams under the current format and will stay about the same under the new one.
But in the department of intense hockey and animosity, the consensus is that the Capitals — and most of the league — will be better off for the change.
"It will create a big rivalry. It will because it'll be the heat of the game and players seem to get more animosity against the other guys," Hunter said. "So when you play in the playoffs, the first two rounds there it's going to be really back to the old style where it'll be tough hockey out there."
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