Washington Capitals and Their 7 Most Heated Rivalries

Robert WoodCorrespondent IJanuary 6, 2013

Washington Capitals and Their 7 Most Heated Rivalries

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    What better way for Washington Capitals fans to warm themselves on these long, cold winter days than by thinking of the Capitals' most heated rivalries?

    Now, these rivalries could be ingrained in a Capitals' DNA.

    Think: Pittsburgh Pen-Goons, or Broad Street Bullies.

    These rivalries could have also arisen more organically, perhaps based on a playoff series or a controversial incident.

    Think: Big Bad Black, Broadway Blueshirts, or the Bleu, Blanc and Rouge.

    And don't forget the Southeast Division. It does not contain the historic rivalries of the old Patrick Division, but it still may contain a heated rivalry or two.

    So, with those criteria in mind, here are the Washington Capitals' seven-most heated rivalries.

7. Montreal Canadiens

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    This rivalry basically came out of nowhere.

    The Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens have never played in the same division and did not meet in the playoffs for the first 35 years of the Capitals' existence.

    Then these two teams met in the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. In the course of those seven games, the history of these two franchises—and the NHL— was changed forever, and a rivalry was born.

    For the Washington Capitals, just the burning desire to exact revenge for that dismal playoff collapse is enough spark to fuel this rivalry. This desire is facilitated by the continued presence of several principal irritants from that series, including Tomas Plekanec, PK Subban and Carey Price.

    For fans of Les Habs, this rivalry will always garner some attention for its own unique reason. Alex Ovechkin darws a huge crowd every time he sets foot on the ice in Montreal. Ovie himself admits to his love of playing on the big stage that is Le Centre Bell.

    But last season, some heat was added to this feud in an indirect and unexpected manner. On Jan. 3, 2012, Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom received a flagrant elbow to the head from Rene Bourque, playing for the Calgary Flames at the time. Backstrom would miss 40 games during the regular season due to concussion symptoms.

    Meanwhile Rene Bourque, who went unpunished during the game in question, was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, whom the Capitals had not yet played during the season. So, on Jan. 18, 2012 Bourque answered for his hit on Backstrom by fighting Capitals' enforcer Matt Hendricks

    This particular rivalry may never be considered one of the Capitals' most heated. But a little fire will always exist from the Capitals' perspective. This fire is sparked by the memory of that painful playoff loss, forever burned in the memories of Washington Capitals players and fans alike.

6. Winnipeg Jets

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    There was some fire in this rivalry when the franchise was located in Atlanta.

    On Nov. 14, 2010 John Erskine and Eric Boulton waged a classic bout, which was quickly dubbed "fight of the year." That incident was at the beginning of what turned out to be the Thrashers' last season in Atlanta.

    But once the Atlanta franchise moved to Winnipeg, the rivalry took on a whole new life. During the 2011-12 season, the hockey-starved fans in Winnipeg were loud, boisterous and unrelenting. The Jets supporters quickly established the MTS Centre as one of the toughest places to play in the entire NHL, not just the Eastern Conference.

    By comparison, the Phillips Arena in Atlanta was never a very threatening place to play. In fact, it was usually one of the best places for traveling Capitals fans to catch a game. But now, the hostile environment in Winnipeg brings a whole new heat and intensity to the rivalry. It carries over when the two teams meet in Washington as well.

    One incident that illustrates the intensity of this rivalry occurred on March 23, 2012 at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., as both teams were fighting for their playoff lives. Washington jumped out to a 3-0 lead and finally surrendered their first goal of the contest in the second period. On the ensuing faceoff, Capitals center Brooks Laich fought Jim Slater in a rather innocuous scuffle.

    But the scrap inspired the Jets. Winnipeg coach Claude Noel explained the significance to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post after the game: 

    The spark that really came on for me was the Slater fight. That’s really what got us going. That really showed the rest of the players, the rest of the team, that we need to battle here, we need to keep going. That was a real statement. ... I think if you look after that fight that he had, I think it was really clear that our team got energized from that, just from a team standpoint that somebody stepped up. That was probably a turning point in the game, ’cause we started to go a lot then. 

    Even Brooks Laich realized he would have done well not to rile up the Caps' intradivisional rivals, who went on to win the crucial game in overtime. Afterwards, Laich admitted as much to Katie Carrera, telling her "maybe the timing on my part wasn’t right." 

    This intensifying rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets is another unfortunate victim of the NHL lockout. Compounding this situation, the Jets have already been pegged for realignment. It is only a matter of time before the franchise is moved out of the same division as the Capitals, and probably the same conference altogether. But it will be interesting to watch the realignment process unfold, and see if the NHL maintains the unbalanced schedule. The Caps and Jets may yet be able to continue their rivalry in the seasons to come.

5. Carolina Hurricanes

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    It speaks to the sad state of affairs in the Southeast Division that the Washington Capitals have only two division rivals appearing on this list. Worse yet that both of them have been accounted for before this list even reaches the fiery four.

    But the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes is undeniable, regardless of divisional alignment.

    In recent years the games between these two foes have been extremely close as a general rule, despite the Washington Capitals dominating the standings. That certainly adds to the tension.

    In that same time, the rivalry has also been colored by multiple on-ice incidents that have drawn the ire of each team.

    On Nov. 30, 2009 Alex Ovechkin received a two-game suspension for a knee-to-knee collision with Tim Gleason.

    On March 31, 2011 Tuomo Ruutu returned the favor—in a manner of speaking—when he kneed defender Dennis Wideman, who had recently been acquired by the Capitals for the playoffs. Wideman was injured on the play and missed the entire 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    The 2011-12 season series between the Caps and Canes was an entertaining one. Matt Hendricks and Derek Joslin engaged in two fights only a month apart. It also saw the previously passive Jeff Skinner emerge as one of the biggest brats in the NHL.

    Whenever the NHL resumes play, this rivalry has a chance to get even hotter. The games could begin to mean more than they have in recent seasons, as the Washington Capitals could be looking up at the Carolina Hurricanes.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

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    The fact that the hated Philadelphia Flyers have fallen to fourth on this list clearly illustrates just how many heated rivalries the Washington Capitals currently have. 

    When looking at the Capitals' history in its entirety, the Flyers would be ranked as No. 1-B in terms of the Caps' most heated rivalries. Geographically speaking, the Flyers are closer to the Caps than any other NHL team. Philly will forever be linked to the Capitals franchise, as the Flyers fell victim to Dale Hunter and the biggest goal in Caps history.

    These two teams played another memorable playoff series in 2009, the first trip to the postseason for the Capitals in the "Young Guns" era. The Caps lost in overtime of Game 7 after rallying from a 3-1 series deficit, but a rivalry was renewed. In fact, the series was so contentious that in the following season, Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post proclaimed that the Flyers are the new enemy No. 1.

    Just a rookie at the time of the article, Karl Alzner was quickly made aware of the significance of the Flyers game, as told to El-Bashir. Alzner was not even in the league for the playoff series:

    When teammates are talking about a game a week or two in advance, that the Flyers are coming up, you know it's big. It didn't need to be said.

     

    These two teams have not played in the playoffs since. So, at least for the purposes of this ranking, the rivalry loses a little heat. But there is definitely some heat there, and it is even being felt on the other side of the rivalry in the City of Brotherly Love.

    In March 2012, the Philadelphia Flyers had come out flat in two consecutive games against teams they had trouble getting motivated to play. But next up was Washington. Very quickly the Flyers were fired up to face the rival Caps, as Scott Hartnell explained to Sarah Baicker of CSNPhilly.com:

    You get [Alex] Ovechkin coming in the building, and you get fired up. You get that extra motivation, I think. Nothing against Florida, but these guys, we’ve had some big games. 

     

    Another series of big games between these two rivals, especially in the cauldron of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, would most assuredly cause this long-burning rivalry to rage once again.

3. New York Rangers

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    The NHL is a funny league.

    You play a certain conference opponent four times a year and think nothing of it. Then you wake up one day and realize to yourself: Wow, I really hate that team.

    Such is the case with the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers.

    The Capitals have played the Broadway Blueshirts in three out of the last four postseasons. Each series did wonders to intensify the rivalry.

    In 2009, combustible New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella went nuts in response to Capitals fans as he watched his team blow series leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Rangers eventually lost the series on Sergei Fedorov's memorable goal in the third period of a tense Game 7.

    In 2011, the two teams played a double-overtime classic in Game 4, also in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Capitals' head coach Bruce Boudreau ripped Madison Square Garden, sparking a long-distance shouting match between the two teams' fan bases.

    And in 2012, the rivalry rose to a fever pitch. The Caps and Rangers played another OT thriller in Game 4 of their series in the Eastern Conference Semifinlals, this one needing three extra periods. Their seven-game series had more twists and turns than an All-Star Game skills competition.

    All the while the regular season matches have been wrought with drama. This includes a memorable fight between captains Alex Ovechkin and Brandon Dubinsky, which happened to be filmed by HBO as part of it's "24/7" series, leading up to the 2011 Winter Classic.

    This rivalry has been a pleasant surprise, adding another layer of texture and color to the Capitals' regular and postseasons. It will be interesting to see how long this rivalry can maintain its intensity.

2. Boston Bruins

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    It's amazing what a close, contentious and controversial seven-game series can do to fan the flames of an already heated rivalry.

    In the last few seasons the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins had a simmering rivalry that remained relatively undetected by the fan bases of both teams. But the fire was there.

    The heat came from a combination of factors, including nationally-televised games, an ongoing war between team captains Alex Ovechkin and Zdeno Chara, and memorable bouts between John Erskine and Milan Lucic.

    But it all boiled over during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins met in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. It was their first postseason meeting since 1998.

    The series was chippy from the start, but the focal point of the unfriendly relations quickly became Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals' first-line center had only recently returned to NHL action after enduring complications from a concussion suffered at the hands (or elbow) of Rene Bourque, then playing for the Calgary Flames. From the start of the series the Bruins were targeting Backstrom's head. There were no elbows or vicious hits, but there was a constant barrage of shoves, slaps and sticks.

    Finally, in the dying moments of Game 3, Backstrom had enough. Rich Peverley raised his hands to cross check Backstrom up high (not necessarily in the head), and Backstrom reacted decisively, crosschecking Peverly quickly, but viciously, in the face. Backstrom earned a one-game suspension and the Bruins players cried foul. But Capitals head coach Dale Hunter pointed out the obvious: the Bruins were targeting Backstrom's head.

    Bruins head coach Claude Julien scoffed at Hunter's allegations, but Hunter seemingly won the war of words. The Bruins stopped harassing Backstrom once he returned in Game 5. More importantly the Big Bad Black was not as big or bad anymore. Cooler heads prevailed after the whistle as a general rule for the rest of the series.

    Between the whistles this series remained red hot. In fact, the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins was the closest series in Stanley Cup Playoffs history from a statistical standpoint: it is the only series in which every game was decided by only one goal. Four of the seven games were decided in overtime. The series-clinching goal did its part to make this series rather memorable as well.

    One of the biggest shames of the ongoing NHL lockout is the fact that the Capitals and Bruins have been denied the chance to immediately resume this fiery rivalry, both in the regular season and beyond.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins is not about Ovechkins and Crosbys.

    It's about Hatfields and McCoys.

    This is a blood feud that has been passed down from generation to generation. It was a raging inferno long before Ovechkin and Crosby donned their respective sweaters, and it will still burn long after these two combatants have left the ice.

    Proof of that occurred during the 2011-12 season, which saw Crosby miss 60 regular season games, including three of the four games against Washington. Despite the absence of Pittsburgh's captain, who happens to be a significant instigator in this rivalry, the two teams still engaged in at least one fight in each of the four regular season games. The feat was a rarity for this series as the Capitals generally finish in the bottom third of the league in team fighting majors.

    The rivalry stayed plenty hot without Sidney Crosby. That being said, a certain fact about this rivalry cannot be understated: the two current captains have written their own delicious chapter in the sordid tale that is Capitals and Penguins. Ovechkin enraged Crosby, and then said "he talks too much." Crosby objected to the hats on the ice after Ovechkin's playoff hat trick, then pulled his team off the ice before the post-game Winter Classic handshakes in 2011.

    Then there was that whole mess about the concussion.

    With or without Sidney Crosby this will always be the Capitals' most heated rivalry. These two factions loathe each other and never hesitate to draw blood, either literal or figurative. This is a fierce and fiery feud that cannot be quelled even by the longest of NHL lockouts.