NEW YORK—Hockey rivalries are like snowflakes or fingerprints—no two are exactly alike, each possessing unique qualities that distinguish them from others.
What has developed between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers in recent years is no exception.
Some rivalries have bad blood that has manifested naturally over the course of decades. Some are a product of location, a territorial battle for bragging rights between teams and fans that share state or provincial borders. Some are born out of one particularly intense playoff series that fuels animosity in the years that follow.
In today’s NHL, there isn’t one particular rivalry that rises above the rest, which is a product of it being a niche league. While the battle of Alberta may reign supreme in Calgary and Edmonton, fans there aren’t all that interested in what happens between Chicago and Detroit.
The folks at NBC and the NHL will have you believe every game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins is a matter of national importance. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby slugging it out for the right to be deified for two-plus hours by Pierre McGuire is considered by those media entities to be must-see TV.
Yet, there’s one matchup that doesn’t garner the same accolades despite the teams having faced each other in four postseason series in the past five seasons with three of them having gone seven games. They are now division rivals and have squared off in more games over the past five-plus seasons than any two teams in the NHL.
It’s a rivalry that, despite what your television may tell you when it’s tuned into NBC or NBCSN, is a favorite for the players involved in it.
“We enjoy the Caps-Pens rivalry,” Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said, “but for me, as a player, I think our biggest rival right now is the Rangers.”
Including the playoffs and regular season, the Capitals and Rangers have played each other 49 times since the 2008-09 season. Of those 49 games, 28 have been decided one goal, although that wasn't the case in the Rangers' 4-1 win on Sunday night.
The teams have split their four most recent postseason matchups, with the Rangers winning the past two in seven games.
The rivalry lacks that "Kris Draper getting hit from behind by Claude Lemieux" moment or the roots of a Bruins-Canadiens contest or the promotional backing of a television network and its professional league partner, but Rangers-Capitals is one of the more fierce, well-played rivalries currently in the NHL.
“In a lot of ways, this is a more intense rivalry than Caps-Penguins because of the four playoff series,” Brouwer said. “That usually generates a lot more animosity between the teams. The Caps-Penguins thing, for a lot of the reasons, is mostly a Crosby-Ovechkin thing rather than the teams. I’ve played more games against the Rangers than any team the past three years, and they’re fun games. Guys are excited to play them. They’re tough games, which just makes the games more exciting for the players and the fans.”
“It’s a very good rivalry. It’s very intense,” Capitals center Brooks Laich said. “We always know it’s going to be close games against these guys. The Pittsburgh rivalry, it might be a 6-5 game. With this rivalry, it’s going to be a 2-1 game or 1-0 or 3-2 usually.
“It’s sort of a chess match, but it’s an aggressive chess match.”
Therein may be the reason why Capitals-Rangers doesn’t get the fanfare of Penguins-Capitals; everyone wants to see Ovechkin and Crosby go at it. No one is leaving work early to watch Bobby Fischer battle it out with…some other chess player on a national television network.
That doesn’t make what this rivalry offers any less worthy of respect.
The Rangers have no shortage of natural rivals. The Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders are a car ride from Madison Square Garden and have a lot of memorable moments of varying importance with the Rangers.
After Sunday's victory at Madison Square Garden, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said these games carry just as much weight with him.
“Yeah, it’s right up there, definitely,” Callahan said. “We’ve seen these guys three of the past four years in the playoffs. It’s pretty easy to get up for these ones.”
Henrik Lundqvist has been with the Rangers since 2005-06 and has witnessed this rivalry with the Capitals blossom into an under-the-radar treat.
“They’re fun games and a lot of times it’s because of the history you’ve had over the years with exciting playoff series,” Lundqvist said. “Three out of four have gone to seven games. They have some really great players. You really have to respect their skill. I think that’s the challenge when you play a team like that.
“I don’t think I feel hate toward any team, but I get excited to play certain teams because of the rivalry. The atmosphere in the building, the way the fans feel about the other team. It’s not a bad thing when they don’t really like each other.”
With the Rangers’ victory Sunday, they have 23 wins in this series to the Caps’ 26 since 2008-09. The games are tight and occasionally display the animosity a rivalry like this entails. The post-whistle scrums are usually at a minimum, but just talk about below-the-belt hits with Brian Boyle, who on Sunday had his testicles…let’s say aggressively probed by the stick of Capitals forward Martin Erat.
“He kind of was, like, I didn’t mean to,” Boyle said. “He just probably regretted it after.”
“The teams haven’t changed all that much over the years,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “Sometimes it feels like you live in Washington, you go in that locker room so many times. It’s always nice to beat them, that’s for sure.”
Aggressive chess won’t appeal to everyone. “Our hockey games are like chess” is a marketing campaign that will never take off. But there's a chance these teams will meet in the playoffs once again this spring. While Rick Nash vs. Alex Ovechkin is a headline that lacks the name of Sidney Crosby, these sides wouldn't mind a rubber match to settle their recent postseason deadlock.
“There’s a lot of angst built up over the years where you get fed up with one team and you really want to stick it to them,” Laich said. “I think it’s just really good hockey. It’s hustle. It’s disciplined. It’s who’s going to crack first. It’s how can we break them down. Can we make them face their own net? Can we wear them down in the third period? Can we find that goal or that power play that we’re looking for.
“There’s so many little things that come into winning these hockey games. So as players, we really appreciate them.”
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.