Just over 47 years ago, in early October of 1974, the Washington Capitals played the first-ever regular-season contest in their history at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. While the 6-3 Rangers win is probably remembered for having the Caps wearing white pants en route to the worst regular season in NHL history (8-67-5), the rivalry between the two clubs never really developed beyond a typical divisional rivalry.
Sure, the two teams have had some playoff series over the years. John Vanbiesbrouck spoiled perhaps Washington’s best chance at a Stanley Cup in the 1980s by engineering an upset of the Capitals in 1986, while the Caps returned the favor to the 1990 Rangers team thanks to John Druce’s heroics. The Rangers downed the Capitals en route to the 1994 Stanley Cup title, while the Caps knocked out New York in 2009 and 2011, while the Blueshirts took out the Capitals in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
But despite that, the two teams never really developed a top-level rivalry, at least one that paled in comparison to the other more geographically convenient rivals.
Washington had its rivalries in the early days of the franchise with the team located directly up Interstate 95 in the Philadelphia Flyers, then the focus also shifted to the dynasty New York Islanders as the team finally qualified for the postseason in 1983, and in the 1990s, the focus shifted to western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While the Rangers were a rival, they didn’t quite rise to the Flyers, Penguins or even Islanders level with the Capitals fan base, certainly not like the city’s NFL teams of the former Redskins and Giants.
The Rangers also had other primary rivals dating back to the Original Six days with the Boston Bruins, then after the expansions of the 1970s brought an expansion cousin to the suburbs, the Blueshirts had a geographic rival in the Islanders, who played less than 30 miles away from Manhattan. The cousin won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s, and then another one arrived in New Jersey in 1982 that won three of their own, with some classic matchups across the Hudson River.
May Match Created Firestorm in New York
So while the Caps and Rangers have traditionally shared a division through most of their histories, from the Patrick to the Atlantic to the Metropolitan, it really wasn’t that either team was the focus of the other in the off-season.
However, that changed this summer after what was a relatively meaningless affair on May 3 at MSG fueled what could take the rivalry to the next level.
With the Rangers falling out of the playoff chase, and the Capitals looking to stay relatively healthy into the postseason, during the second period of a 6-3 Capitals win, Washington winger Tom Wilson threw a punch with Pavel Buchnevich down on the ice, then tossed Artemi Panarin to the ice twice after the Rangers forward tried to intervene.
In the aftermath, Panarin was knocked out of action for the remainder of the regular season, and Wilson received a $5,000 fine — neither of which made the Rangers happy. The team issued a strongly worded statement after the punishment was handed down from the NHL, calling it a “horrifying act of violence.”
Two nights after the original incident on May 5, the two teams opened with a brawl-filled game off the opening draw in a rematch at Madison Square Garden that resulted in a “Slapshot”-style frame. The Rangers looked for revenge for the Wilson takedown, and Washington was happy to accept the challenge with numerous fights in the frame, looking more like hockey did in the 1970s rather than the modern era.
Washington took the game thanks to a T.J. Oshie hat trick, but in the aftermath, the Rangers focused on how to avoid getting pushed around again — by the Capitals or anyone.
Changes Over the Offseason
The brawl left a sour taste in New York, and the team cleaned house once the season ended, firing general manager Jeff Gorton and coach David Quinn. They promoted Chris Drury as the new GM, and Drury hired Gerard Gallant as head coach, who battled the Caps in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final behind the Vegas Golden Knights bench.
New York brought in a pair of players who had tangled with Wilson in the past. Forward Ryan Reaves, who delivered a knockout blow to Wilson in 2019, was acquired from the Golden Knights in July for a third-round pick. Jarred Tinordi, who tangled with Wilson in Boston back in March, signed to a two-year deal with the Rangers in late July.
The Rangers’ direction in the offseason was to try and get tougher, at least partially in response to the two-game series at MSG five months ago.
The moves also set up what is the Opening Night matchup for both teams Wednesday at Capital One Arena — and one that will be the first-ever regular-season broadcast for the NHL’s new network partner, TNT.
At the very least, the Rangers remodeled in the offseason trying to match Washington, even though under the return to traditional schedule format, the teams will only see each other three times this season — with the next match not coming until after the Olympic break on Feb. 24.
Wilson, Reaves Downplay Rangers Remake
While Wilson was asked recently about the New York offseason makeover, he deflected responsibility.
“[New York] obviously wanted to play tougher, they wanted to bring in some grit,” Wilson told NBC Sports Washington as camp opened. “I mean in the first place, it shouldn’t be a guy like Panarin that’s jumping on my back. That whole situation — I won’t speak to it too much — but he shouldn’t feel like he ever should have had to do that.”
Reaves also downplayed the May incident, although he did bring up the Capitals forward by name.
“I’m not here because of Tom Wilson,” Reaves said last month according to the New York Post (“Enforcer Ryan Reaves heard Rangers fans’ calls and is ready to answer them,” New York Post, Sept. 24). “I’m here because of what players like Tom Wilson brings to his team … It doesn’t matter [who] the player is, what team it is, whether we’re out east or out west, I’m holding everybody accountable.”
“It doesn’t matter what happened last year, doesn’t matter what happened 10 years ago. It’s what happens this season, and everybody is going to be held accountable when they go up against our team.”
With all that said, Wednesday’s game will show if the Capitals-Rangers take the next level in the rivalry between the two teams, which has never quite reached the top-level status for either team despite nearly 50 years of battling back and forth.
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Certainly, the Rangers’ actions in the last six months point to trying to match the Capitals’ grit and toughness, while Washington has certainly never shied away from playing heavy hockey against divisional opponents, the Islanders, Penguins, Flyers and now the Rangers.
Certainly, with another four months before the two teams square off again, it’ll be tough to tell if this rivalry is ready to take the next step. But if it’s anything like the last meeting between the two clubs, it certainly will provide for a memorable season opener.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.