For Washington Capitals, NHL’s realignment plan brings back old-school rivalries

December 6, 2011

One day after the NHL approved a radical league realignment plan, the consensus among the Washington Capitals was that it will be a good thing — particularly for fans longing for the days of the ever-intense Patrick Division battles rather than sparsely-attended contests in South Florida.

“It will create big rivalries,” said Coach Dale Hunter, who played in the Patrick Division as a member of the Capitals. “It will be the heat of the game. The players will have more animosity against the other guys. So when you play in the playoffs in the first two rounds, it’s really going to be back to the old style.”

Under the four-conference alignment, which is expected to be implemented for next season and was approved Monday night by the NHL’s board of governors in a 26-4 vote, Washington will share a yet-to-be-named, seven-team conference with Carolina, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers and Islanders.

The Capitals would play each of their conference foes three times at home and three times on the road. They’ll also face teams outside of their conference twice, once on home ice and once away.

Being in a seven-team conference as opposed to an eight-team conference gives the Capitals a slightly better chance (57 percent vs. 50) of making the playoffs. Center Jeff Halpern conceded that it may be “unfair.”

“It seems a little unusual,” he said. “I thought they could have done some at-large bids. You want the best teams in there. You could have a [conference] one year where all seven teams are terrible. Then, in another [conference], there could be eight good teams and four don’t make the playoffs. That seems a little unfair.”

The top four teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs.

The first-place team will face fourth place, while second place will play the third-place team. The four conference champions would then meet in the third round, with the winners advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

Halpern grew up in Potomac and attended games at Capital Centre. So he recalls the rivalries, particularly postseason memories such as Hunter’s Game 7 goal in overtime against the Flyers in 1988 and the disappointments against the Penguins.

“I think it’s great for Washington,” Halpern added. “You get those old rivalries back.”

While teams in the east will have to make more trips west, the Capitals will see easier travel within their own conference. The Capitals will spend about 60 nights on the road this season; that number might increase nominally next season.

“Travel-wise, it will be easier, closer to home,” said 39-year-old Mike Knuble, who has played for both Philadelphia, which has among the easiest travel schedules, and Detroit, which has among the worst.

“Travel is a huge part of our league and rest is a huge part of our league. If you can cut the travel factor down — we travel pretty well — that’s beneficial, especially for players as they mature.”

The hockey fan in Knuble also likes the fact that every team will face each of the other 29 clubs at least twice.

“Every city should have a chance to see Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and the other young stars every year,” he said. “That’s a good thing for the fans and for the league.”

Comcast SportsNet color analyst Craig Laughlin, who played in the rough-and-tumble Patrick Division as a member of the Capitals from 1982-88, wondered whether it could force general managers to reassess the construction of their teams.

“If the Patrick Division becomes the Patrick Division of old, now all of a sudden, maybe [there will be an emphasis] on size, toughness, physical play, which we [had] in the 80’s, whereas Edmonton and those guys were high, flying, free-wheeling teams,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s going to come into it. But it would seem that we have a tradition against those teams where there always seems to be a lot of physical play.”

While that’s debatable, this much is not: Facing conference foes in the first two rounds of the playoffs figures to make for a “heated” postseason, according to Troy Brouwer.

“You’ve got to win your conference before you move on,” he said. “That’s just going to make those rivalries a lot more heated. Six times — plus, if you make the playoffs you’re guaranteed to play them at least another four times, and then another team that’s your rival another four times.”

“It makes for a lot more exciting hockey, and any guy will tell you that if there’s more to the hockey game than just a hockey game, that you’re more excited to play it,” he added.

Capitals notes: Hunter shook up his forward lines at practice Tuesday. The most notable change was the reuniting of high-risk, high-reward trio of Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin has one goal in his past 12 games. . . . Winger Matt Hendricks missed practice with a lower body injury he suffered Monday night. He is listed by the team as day to day. . . . Defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who has missed three games with what the team is calling a lower-body injury, said he’s closer to returning.

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