No sports league has gerrymandered more than the NHL. Teams have been shuffled around so much, it’s easy to forget that the Capitals spent the first five years of their existence in the other conference (in the Norris Division with Montreal, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Los Angeles). For the past two seasons they’ve been members of the Southeast Division, a motley crew that also includes Carolina (the transplanted Hartford Whalers), Tampa Bay (a league member since ‘93), Florida (a league member since ‘94) and Atlanta (new this year). Not what you’d call a tradition-laden group.
“At the beginning of the season,” Florida general manager Bryan Murray said last night, “a lot of people looked at this as being the easy division, the less-talented division, maybe.” And I was one of those people.
“But now you’re seeing teams like Washington and Florida making a big impact around the league and obviously winning a lot of games. And that’s only going to continue to happen. We’re both going to have good-looking teams for a while.”
In fact, the Capitals and Panthers are probably going to carry this division the next few years, hopefully even give it an identity. When they met last night at MCI Arena, Florida had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, Washington was the hottest team in the league and just four points separated them in the standings. Three high-anxiety hours later, after the Caps had rallied from a one-goal deficit to win in overtime on Chris Simon’s score, the Panthers’ lead was only three points. Was this the beginning of a beautiful rivalry? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Of course, rivalries usually take a while to percolate, to develop that mutual loathing. And as Ron Wilson said, “It used to be easier to develop division rivalries when you played each other in the first two rounds of the playoffs every year. Because it’s cyclical, you’d be going up against the same teams four or five years in a row in long series and the animosity would just build. Not just between your team and the other team, but between your fans and the other team. They would just become so familiar with the other team’s best players.”
Indeed, the Capitals-Penguins rivalry was never more intense than when the clubs were meeting five times in six years in the playoffs during the ‘90s. Before that, it was the Caps and the Islanders who were sworn enemies (they locked sticks in the playoffs five straight seasons in the ‘80s). And, of course, the Caps and Flyers always have had a mutual hatred because they’re close enough geographically to smell one another’s after-shave.
Washington and Florida don’t have that kind of proximity. But they do have a few things going for them, things that make for a good rivalry. For starters, there’s the presence of Terry Murray behind the Panthers bench and Bryan Murray in the front office. As former coaches of the Capitals, the Murrays like nothing better than to beat their old team. Then there’s Pavel Bure, the greatest goal-scorer in hockey. He adds juice to any game just like Mario Lemieux did when the Caps butted up against him, time and again.
Finally, there’s the similarity in how the two teams are put together. They’re variations on the same theme, really. “Their trademark since they’ve been in the league is a tough defensive style take care of your own end first and we strive to be like that, too,” Calle Johansson said. “Bure’s on his own page maybe a little bit, but we have guys [e.g. Peter Bondra] who are very capable offensively.”
What that means, almost invariably, is close games. Every game the Capitals and Panthers have played this season has been a Stomach-Knot Special 4-3, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2. Can you imagine what it would be like if the clubs hooked up in a seven-game series?
Who knows, we might not have to imagine much longer. It could happen this year … if the playoffs break right. And then the rivalry would really take off. There’s nothing better for a rivalry than a festering wound such as one team ending another team’s season. (Nothing, that is, except a real wound such as the one Marty McSorley inflicted on Donald Brashear the other night. Too bad Boston and Vancouver are in different conferences.)
Everybody was on his best behavior last night, though. It was just two clubs fighting it out for the division title. “I think both teams understand the importance of winning the division,” Wilson said, “because you get at least a third seed and home ice [in the first round]. We proved a couple of years ago that because things are so even anything can develop if you’ve got the second, third or fourth seed. You can end up with the home ice all the way through to the finals.”
The Capitals, who trailed Florida by 14 points not long ago, seem determined to be the team that wins the division. But they may have to beat the Panthers again March 7, also at MCI to claim their prize. And that game figures to be just as much of a stress test as last night’s.
“If we have these annual battles for division titles,” Murray said, “we have a chance to build up a real good rivalry.”
Last night’s thriller was a very big step in that direction.