The NHL switched from six five-team divisions to four uneven ones this season in a move designed to rekindle old rivalries and ease the travel and marketing concerns of certain clubs. For the Washington Capitals, though, it makes the road to a seventh consecutive playoff berth a lot more difficult.
“It’s going to be a huge change. It’s going to be very, very tough for us, but at the same time maybe keep us a little more prepared, know what to expect coming into playoffs,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I think it will keep the team honest all 82 games.”
As part of the Metropolitan Division — which includes Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, New Jersey, Carolina and Columbus — the Capitals likely will face more outright competition for a playoff spot than they did in the Southeast Division.
With the new setup, eight teams reside in both the Metropolitan and Atlantic in the East and seven teams constitute the Pacific and Central in the West. The top three teams in each division automatically qualify for the postseason. The last two playoff berths in each conference are wild cards, awarded to the teams with the highest point totals regardless of division.
The Capitals went 20-19-7 against teams in their new division over the past two years and 27-11-4 against the Southeast in that same span. Over the past five seasons, Washington went 77-33-20 against Metropolitan teams and 76-29-9 against the Southeast.
In addition to Washington, three now-Metropolitan members — the Penguins, Rangers and Islanders — made the playoffs last year. Columbus missed qualifying in the Western Conference based on a tiebreak with Minnesota, and both New Jersey and Philadelphia are looking for bounce-back seasons after sitting out last spring. At this stage, though, the players like the idea of facing a greater challenge to reach the postseason, even if facing lackluster Southeast teams aided their efforts in the past.
“We don’t get to see Florida six times a year, we don’t get to see Tampa Bay that much. Those are teams we match up really well against and we love playing against them,” Troy Brouwer said. “Some of our games are going to be a little bit tougher, but I don’t think anyone is worried about that.”
The Capitals, who face the Calgary Flames on Thursday in their home opener at Verizon Center, will also have one of the most convenient travel schedules; no divisional opponent is more than an hour flight away.
Those changes alone, especially heaping higher stakes on contests against familiar adversaries from the Patrick Division, are positive moves, in the eyes of General Manager George McPhee.
“They are our natural rivals, they’re right next door,” McPhee said. “Trying to create rivalries with teams that are three or four hours away like Tampa and Florida didn’t work. We’ve got the rivalry with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Rangers, because we’re all on the Eastern seaboard here. We should be great rivals.”
Said Joel Ward: “I think it’s pretty cool to play more games against our rivalries. It’ll be great for fans and for us to see the Crosbys, the Phillys and the New Yorks quite a few times. The only way to win is to beat the good teams. You can’t hide.”
Last season, after getting off to one of the worst starts in franchise history, the Capitals’ place in the Southeast helped them in their quest for the postseason as they went 15-3-0 against the division and 12-15-3 against everyone else in the Eastern Conference.
Washington should be in better position for a more consistent season with familiarity in its coaching staff, system and lineup, but players know a slide of any significant length could be much more damaging this time around.
“With the teams in our division, you lose a game and somebody’s on your heels and they’re going to be leapfrogging you all the time. That’s the way it’s going to keep guys a little more in check,” Alzner said. “Even if it takes away one year of playoffs, that’s one year too many.”