- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Robin Taylor grew up a Washington Capitals fan but didn’t attend her first game at the Capital Centre until 1994.

That was technically a year after the Patrick Division ended, but the same rivals were there in the new “Atlantic” Division, so plenty of hatred built up for the Flyers, Penguins, Rangers, Devils and Islanders until the realignment in 1999 that put the Caps with the Hurricanes, Thrashers, Panthers and Lightning.

She and her husband, Pete Kuszmaul, became season-ticket holders before the 2008-09 season amid the team’s surge to contender status. Since then, the price for their 400-level seats has gone up from about $2,500 to more than $4,000.

“We were considering giving up our tickets after this season just because costs have gone up so much,” said Taylor, 30, of Washington.

That plan changed with the NHL’s announcement of a drastic realignment that means the Caps will face their own Patrick Division rivals three times each at Verizon Center, something that fans have been wanting for a while.

Philip Davis, 31, of Catonsville, Md., also has been a season-ticket holder since 2008-09. And while he wasn’t considering giving up his seats, which he splits with a friend, realignment is a big relief for him.

“I’ve had lots of trouble with weekday game tickets against Florida and Tampa Bay — they don’t really sell that well,” Davis said. “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. The ones I don’t go to will be easier to sell.”

For the past 12 years since the Caps started playing in the NHL’s Southeast Division, so much talk has centered on building new traditions and rivalries with the Tampa Bays, Carolinas and Floridas of the world. Except for the Lightning, it hasn’t really happened.

And is Tampa Bay even a draw? Taylor said she has to sell one playoff game per round for budgeting purposes, so a second-round series against the Lightning last spring didn’t make life easy.

“Trying to sell that first game for Tampa last year was like pulling teeth. No one wants to go see Tampa, even in the playoffs,” Taylor said. “I had a lot easier time selling first-round Rangers tickets than I did second-round Tampa tickets.”

Davis and Taylor said the playoffs — and in Taylor’s case maybe a Winter Classic in the near future — are the reason to have season tickets. Selling regular-season games keeps costs at a moderate level.

“When I first got it, I went to every single game … now I say probably 10 games a year,” said Davis, whose commute from the Baltimore area prevents more. The reason that we have the season tickets is we’re most interested in going to the playoffs.”

Ana Hansen, 22, of Hampton, Va., who used to live in Washington but still makes it to 12 to 15 games a year, approves of the realignment because of more games “against a lot of people that we don’t like very much.” The NHL was going for less travel and those rivalries, so it seems like a victory.

“Even before the division realignment was passed, if I were to have a choice between a Pens-Caps game or a Flyers-Caps game and a Panthers-Caps game, I would definitely choose to go to a game against the Penguins or against the Flyers,” Hansen said. “I think we play well against those teams. I think we don’t like them very much. There’s an edge to those games that makes them a lot of fun.”

The first two rounds of the playoffs being intraconference play could turn up the heat then, too. Davis has fond memories of Sergei Fedorov’s goal in Game 7 against the Rangers in 2009 and noted that it probably wouldn’t have been as exciting had it happened against the Panthers or Lightning.

Now, for the first two rounds, it’s guaranteed to be the Penguins, Rangers, Devils, Flyers, Islanders or Hurricanes.

“These are teams that we already hate in the regular season. These are the teams that we like to go to Verizon Center and yell at the top of our lungs. There’s this animosity that we already have with these teams,” Hansen said.

“If we’re going to be in this kind of playoff format where we’re going to be playing the same teams possibly over and over the first round and second round year after year, I think these rivalries are probably going to intensify in a pretty serious way. It’s going to be fun to watch.”