By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
The Washington Capitals do not care for a number of opposing teams -- namely Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the New York Rangers and Carolina. But for the current core of Capitals, there really isn't much debating who is the most hated: It's the Flyers, the team from 130 miles up Interstate 95, the one that squashed their storybook run last April with a power-play goal in overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and then, two weeks ago, poured salt on Washington's wounds by handing the club its worst loss since 2006.
"There are a lot of teams we don't like, and the Flyers are one of them," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It was a pretty interesting playoffs, and they beat us pretty good last month. There's not a lot of like with each other."
Boudreau's team is one of the NHL's hottest, having won six straight and 11 of its past 12 games to vault into second place in the Eastern Conference. Its only loss in that span, interestingly, was a humbling 7-1 setback on Dec. 20 to the Flyers, who are tied for fourth in the East, just five points behind the Capitals.
Fans might argue that Pittsburgh remains Washington's biggest rival because of all the heartbreak the Penguins have inflicted on the Capitals over the years. Pittsburgh has ousted Washington six times in seven postseason meetings, and more recently, there has been the rivalry between the NHL's past two MVPs, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
The Capitals, however, don't see it that way. Since the departure of Olie Kolzig via free agency last summer, there is no longer a locker room connection to all of the playoff letdowns against the Penguins, the most recent of which came in 2001 -- before many of the current players were drafted.
And the Ovechkin-Crosby angle? That's little more than media hype to the players themselves.
But mention the Flyers around the Capitals' locker room these days, and there's no longer any doubt that Philadelphia has surpassed Crosby's Penguins as enemy No. 1, even if only by a slight margin.
"We played them 11 times last year," defenseman Shaone Morrisonn said. "It just seems the games against Philly are a little rougher. Pittsburgh plays more of a skilled game. Philly has skill, too; they are a great team. But Philly plays physical. It's a different game than against Pittsburgh. Those two teams have both been big rivals, but right now I think Philly is the biggest."
It's not just wins, losses, bumps and bruises, Morrisonn said. It's everything about the Flyers, including their notorious fans, who infiltrate the stands at Verizon Center and wreak havoc outside the arena in Philadelphia. The defenseman recalled departing Wachovia Center after losing Game 4 of last season's playoff series to go down three games to one. What should have been a 15-minute ride to the train station took more than an hour.
"People weren't moving" for the police escort, Morrisonn said. "They were mooning us, throwing stuff at us, beer bottles, whatever they had in their hands. It's to be expected from Philly fans. Didn't they boo Santa Claus?"
Earlier in the series, when a busload of Capitals employees arrived in Philadelphia, a group of unruly fans surrounded the bus and rocked it back and forth while screaming obscenities. When the staffers returned, the bus was covered in mustard, ketchup and shaving cream.
The bus episodes and the sudden and heartbreaking end to last season -- the Capitals rallied to force a Game 7, only to leave empty-handed after Joffrey Lupul's power-play goal -- has stuck with many of players, the majority of whom were in the playoffs for the first time.
"We climbed and struggled to just get one more day to play hockey," forward Brooks Laich said. "Then we went down 3-1 and people said, 'Hey, they've finally hit the wall.' But we kept playing and battled back in the series and it was overtime of Game 7 and then they score, and it's like the world crashed. It just abruptly came to a halt."
The teams' first meeting this season did little to soothe that disappointment.
The Capitals were dominant early, launching a franchise-record 25 shots on goal in the first period. But by the end of 40 minutes, the Flyers were ahead 3-0 and in total control. Things got ugly in the third period. Enforcer Donald Brashear beat up Philadelphia's Riley Cote for the second time, Matt Bradley fought Josh Gratton, then both Brashear and Arron Asham were assessed misconducts after Asham slashed Brashear on the leg. In all, 78 minutes in penalties were doled out.
"I don't know how much they like us, but we don't like them," Boudreau said. "I think the animosity [at the end of last month's game] was more frustration on our part. We thought we had played a pretty good game, but yet we were down 7-1. There were a lot of boiling points. They wanted to pile it on as much as possible. They were probably bummed out that their tough guy got beat up twice, so they started coming after our guys."
All of that provides an intriguing backdrop for tonight's meeting at Verizon Center, where the Capitals are 17-1-1. Washington is expected to start José Theodore, while the Flyers aren't expected to have Lupul (abdominal pull) or goalie Antero Niittymaki (groin pull). Simon Gagne (shoulder), Asham (knee), Darroll Powe (hip) and Gratton (abdominal pull) are all questionable.
Although rookie defenseman Karl Alzner wasn't around for last year's playoff series, he didn't need a team meeting or heart-to-heart with a veteran to know that beating the Flyers is worth a whole lot more than two points.
"When teammates are talking about a game a week or two in advance, that the Flyers are coming up, you know it's big," Alzner said. "It didn't need to be said."