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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.