- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2019

Saturday’s game between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets crawled by. Columbus led 1-0 for almost the entirety of regulation, until the Capitals pulled their goalie for an extra skater and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored late to force overtime.

Kuznetsov celebrated his first goal since Dec. 2 the same way he always celebrates — he lifted one leg and flapped his arms like a bird’s wings, which some have taken to calling his “bird dance.”

The Blue Jackets definitely took notice.

After Artemi Panarin scored the overtime winner for Columbus, a cluster of Blue Jackets celebrated the win by mimicking Kuznetsov’s bird dance on Washington’s home ice.

The Capitals weren’t offended by the Blue Jackets’ celebration after the game — just a little salty. Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson both referred back to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Washington came back from down 2-0 to beat Columbus in the first round.

“That’s fine, you know? It’s nice to get some people to think about me,” Kuznetsov said. “Same as like in April last year, you know?”

“I think they can remember what happened. We can remember what happened,” Wilson said. “It’s a rivalry now. A team knocks you out, you’re not gonna be happy about it. We’re gonna keep going and I’m sure there will be a few more down the road where you’ll see a little more animosity.”

Do the Capitals really have a new Ohio-based rival? It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of Capitals-Penguins in terms of either history or just plain hatred.

But Washington can’t sleep on the Blue Jackets, who are third place in the Metropolitan Division, just four points behind Washington in the standings and making what might be their last playoff push with their current roster.

The Jackets’ two best players — Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky — are both playing the final year of their respective contracts. Bobrovsky is rumored to want out of Columbus; it didn’t help matters that the team benched him for one game last week as punishment for some undisclosed incident. Bobrovsky only said he let his emotions get to him after a tough loss.

The Blue Jackets are where they are thanks to smart drafting and trades over the years. Their top-line center, Pierre-Luc Dubois, is 20 years old. They have a strong core of young defensemen like Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Markus Nutivaara.

“They’re one of those teams that seem to play that style that can hold you off the score sheet a little bit,” Wilson said. “They keep it simple, they get pucks out and get pucks down.”

But they will be a weaker team next year if they lose Panarin, Bobrovsky or both. As a smaller sports market, Columbus is not an easy place to reload in the short term with top free agent talent.

What does that mean for the Capitals? They can expect the Jackets to be desperate to make a deep playoff run this year. And being the team that eliminated Columbus nine months ago certainly doesn’t make for a “friendly” rival, though Nick Foligno complimented the Capitals after Saturday’s game.

“That’s a good team. We’re always going to be competing against them in our division,” the Columbus captain said. “I loved our resolve. I loved the way we found a way to get the job done in overtime.”

A nice extra layer to the budding rivalry is the individual competition between Kuznetsov and Panarin, who grew up in the same town in Russia and went to the same hockey school. Kuznetsov famously said last year that he’d talk Panarin if he saw him, but that “we’re not that close to calling (on) FaceTime before (we) sleep.” And now Panarin’s teammates have mocked Kuznetsov’s celebration.

So is there really a Washington-Columbus rivalry brewing? Check back in on Feb. 12, when they meet in Ohio for the last time this regular season.

In the meantime, the Capitals host the St. Louis Blues on Monday night and travel to Nashville to play the Predators Tuesday.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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