Capitals to Open Cup Defense vs. ‘Bunch of Jerks’ From Carolina

With nothing left to play for on the last night of the NHL regular season with the Metropolitan Division already clinched, the Washington Capitals rested regulars Nick Backstrom, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie against the New York Islanders — Alexander Ovechkin being Alexander Ovechkin, and perhaps looking to add to his league-leading goal-scoring total, played anyway. After all, staying healthy was more important than beating an Islanders squad that still needed two points to sew up home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

So the team went through the motions on Saturday night during a 3-0 loss at home with their eyes firmly fixed on the out-of-town scoreboard. It was the fourth time in six seasons the Capitals have been shutout during their regular-season home finale, a reflection of the fact that during the Ovechkin era the team normally has a playoff spot sewn up by now.

Thanks to the schedule makers, every team in the NHL played on Saturday night with the exception of the idle Anaheim Ducks. That meant the Capitals had their eyes on three separate games – Columbus Blue at Ottawa Senators, Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins – involving their potential playoff opponents.

Before the night began, the Capitals were slated to face the Hurricanes in the first round. While the wheel of playoff fortune spun mightily over the course of the evening – at one point it appeared the Capitals might have to face the dreaded Penguins in the first round – by the end of the evening nothing had changed.

Columbus Blue Jackets Boone Jenner Pittsburgh Penguins Nick Bjugstad
Washington won’t miss playing Pittsburgh or Columbus in the first round of the playoffs. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

It was easy to feel like the Capitals had dodged a bullet. While the Flyers are Washington’s closest geographic rival, that doesn’t take into account the space the Penguins still rent inside the franchise’s collective psyche.

A return engagement with the Blue Jackets would have only been slightly less alarming. Fans in Washington know how close the team came to playoff elimination at the hands of the Blue Jackets in the first round last season. And truth be told, it’s better for the league too, as seeing head coach John Tortorella takes the Blue Jackets into Tampa to play the team he once led to the Stanley Cup provides all sorts of additional drama.

Washington Capitals right wing Tom Wilson Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek
The Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes: a rivalry born of indifference (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

This leads us back to the Hurricanes, a “bunch of jerks” that had the nerve to try to make hockey fun again for fans that had experienced little more than regular season futility over the last decade. For the Capitals, it’s a no drama matchup, one that provides a simple storyline of champion vs. underdog.

If anything, Don Cherry’s ridiculous attack on Carolina’s “storm surge” generated some admiration on the part of Washington hockey fans. So until the first puck drops on Thursday night in Washington, there just isn’t any bile or animosity in this relationship. It’s probably worth examining just why that is.

Trapped in the Southeast Division

From the standpoint of someone who’s lived in Washington for the last 34 years, it’s hard to feel much of anything about the former Hartford Whalers. Sure, between 1998 and 2013 the teams shared living space in the best-forgotten Southeast Division. The Southeast always had the feel of something thrown together on the fly, with the Capitals wondering how they wound up there with the relocated Hurricanes and three recent expansion teams in the Lightning, Florida Panthers and Atlanta Thrashers.

After all, once the Capitals had suffered through their own expansion growing pains in the 1970s, they really came of age in the old Patrick Division. It was then that the Capitals and their fans experienced a new level of suffering at the hands of the Islanders, Penguins, Rangers, Flyers and New Jersey Devils.

Imagine this: one day you’re the mascot in the most popular frat on campus. The next, you’re kicked out and forced to move to a dorm on the farthest reaches of campus only reachable by shuttle bus. Now you’re rooming with three dorky freshmen and a transfer student from Connecticut who grew up in a shopping mall. Sounds like a party, doesn’t it? The kid from that great empty space between New York and the rest of New England is pretty good on the trumpet, but something tells me you’d be looking for the exit, too.

Heaven knows Capitals fans were not happy with the switch. The home schedule became something of a desert, as the teams Washington hockey fans had grown to love to hate (Philadelphia most of all in those early days) were replaced by four teams that looked like they came out of the AHL.

Rod Brind'Amour Carolina Hurricanes
Rod Brind’Amour helped put the Carolina Hurricanes on the map by winning the 2006 Stanley Cup. (The Hockey Writers)

Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that when we root for teams, we’re really rooting for clothes. And when it came to the Southeast Division, he was exactly right. Until an expansion team cuts its teeth on actual competition with something of value on the line, they’re nothing but a big load of laundry.

Of course, times change, and they did too for the Southeast. Tampa Bay and Carolina won Cups on either side of a lockout. The Thrashers are gone to greener pastures on the Canadian prairie, while the Panthers, well, still hobble along playing in the most underrated arena in the league before an ocean of empty seats.

Not that the Capitals left the Southeast empty-handed. After all, they did manage to win seven division titles, all of which are now crowded onto a single banner at Capital One Arena. Something tells me that when the old barn is retired sometime in the coming decades the team will auction it off to a fan who will use it as a nice area rug in the foyer of his multi-million dollar McMansion in Northern Virginia.

So Who Are These Jerks From Carolina?

That’s not an idle question, as these teams, who have spent a combined 92 seasons playing professional hockey have never met before in the postseason. And while the Hurricanes fought their way to two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final in five years just after the turn of the century, the Capitals didn’t serve as Carolina’s foil during either of those two seasons.

Back in the here and now, despite the fact that the Capitals secured the #2 seed in the East, the Hurricanes only finished five points behind Washington in the regular season. Over 82 games, that’s less than a point per month, so the gap between the two squads in less than one might think.

Of greater concern is the fact that Carolina goalies Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney made less salary combined than Capitals goalie Braden Holtby and his backup Pheonix Copley while clearly outplaying them (Carolina yielded 27 fewer goals). Holtby has regained more than a bit of his 2018 playoff form in recent weeks, but the weak stretches during the regular season have to weigh on the collective minds of the coaching staff.

Tomas Hertl, Braden Holtby
San Jose Sharks Tomas Hertl celebrates his game-winning goal for a hat trick past Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

And while Carolina only posted a 1-3-0 mark against the Capitals this season, the Hurricanes were not pushovers. The two most recent games in March were uncomfortably close, as Carolina was battling to secure their first playoff berth since 2009.

So, if you’re a Washington hockey fan, should the Hurricanes worry you? The answer is it’s the playoffs, so you should always be worried. The Capitals look deeper down the middle and boast seven players who have scored 20 goals or more. They have the better power play, while Carolina is just a little better on the penalty kill.

There is one area where the Hurricanes are even up with Washington, and that’s behind the bench. Though first-year Washington head coach Todd Reirden has been an assistant on a number of playoff teams in D.C. and Pittsburgh, this will be the first time he’s been the head coach during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is exactly the same spot Hurricanes head coach Ron Brind’Amour finds himself in.

Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour
Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour has taken the team to the playoffs in his first season behind the bench (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

The former Carolina captain has his team playing fast and loose. In short, they’re having fun and dying to perform another “storm surge” in front of the hometown fans during the playoffs. He’s also got two veterans on his roster in Jordan Staal and Justin Williams who have experienced Washington’s postseason phobias on either side of the puck.

If the Capitals have proven anything over the years in the playoffs, there’s always a new and inventive way to sabotage your prospects in April. Brind’Amour, Staal and Williams will be making that point clear to their teammates. So while I’ll take Washington in six games, rest assured there will be more than a few uncomfortable moments for the Capitals during this series, and at least two chances for the “jerks” to shine on home ice.

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News flash: if you hate this celebration, you’re the jerk.