When the NHL gerrymandered the Capitals into the newly conceived Southeast Division for the 1998-99 season, it put Washington into a division with three other clubs – Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay – that were further from the District geographically than most of the other Eastern Conference clubs. It didn’t seem to make much sense in terms of fostering rivalries, but it turned out to be beneficial for the Caps over the years.
Tonight the Caps will play their 326th and final Southeast Division game ever when they host the Winnipeg Jets in a game that holds significant playoff implications for both clubs. The Caps are 184-97-44 all-time against Southeast foes, including 14-3-0 this season.
With an overtime or regulation win over the Jets tonight, the Caps will clinch their seventh Southeast Division title in the 14 seasons in which the division has been in existence. If they’re successful, the Caps will have won as many Southeast Division crowns as the rest of the division denizens combined. Carolina won three, Tampa Bay won it twice and Atlanta/Winnipeg and Florida earned one Southeast title each.
Winnipeg still holds faint hopes of claiming its second Southeast crown and its first since moving to Manitoba for the 2011-12 season. The Jets trail the Caps by a single point going into tonight’s game, but Winnipeg has only two games remaining while Washington has three. Even if the Caps were to lose tonight, they would retain control of their own destiny for the division title.
For most of the time these two teams shared the same division together, there wasn’t much of a rivalry between the two teams. There wasn’t any cachet to any of the Atlanta-Washington match-ups. But that all changed after the last lockout.
Bob Hartley took over as the Atlanta coach during the 2002-03 season, and he began to guide the Thrashers slowly up the Southeast standings ladder. He also alienated many on the Washington side with the way he coached and with some of his and his players’ tactics.
Coming out of the lockout that killed the 2004-05 season, the Caps were firmly in a rebuilding mode while Atlanta had a number of stars such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Marc Savard and Marian Hossa. They also had some strong second-line talent in Bobby Holik, Slava Kozlov, Scott Mellanby and ex-Caps star Peter Bondra.
Atlanta finished fifth in the league in goals scored that season, and they routinely torched the Caps right from the outset of the 2005-06 season. The Thrashers thrashed the Caps 7-3 in the second game of the campaign, a Friday night game at Verizon Center. A night later, they trounced the Caps 8-1 at Philips Arena.
Hartley played his top power play unit well into the late stages of the Saturday game and the Thrashers – who hadn’t even sniffed a playoff spot in their brief history to that point – celebrated that spate of October tallies against the Caps as if they’d been scored in June.
“To have a team score goals like that and then continue to celebrate like they did, jumping up and down after their seventh and eighth goals, that’s something that hopefully we’ll keep in the back of our heads,” warned Caps captain Jeff Halpern after the Caps’ lost weekend early in the 2005-06 season. “We see them six more times this year. We’ll have our chances.”
Fast forward to April 17, 2006.
Atlanta is visiting Verizon Center for its penultimate game of the season. The Thrashers trail the eighth-place Tampa Bay Lightning by three points, but have a game in hand. If Atlanta can win its final two games against Washington and Florida and if the Lightning is limited to a point or less in its final game – also against Washington – the Thrashers will nail down their first-ever playoff berth.
Holik staked the Thrashers to a 1-0 lead just 11 seconds into the game, but the one area of the game that seemed to plague Hartley and the Thrashers the most came back to bite them: goaltending. With Kari Lehtonen on the sidelines with one of his frequent injuries, Mike Dunham was in goal against the Caps. Dunham had played well down the stretch to help give Atlanta a crack at the postseason, but Brooks Laich and Matt Pettinger dented him on consecutive shots 23 seconds apart only about four minutes after Holik had staked the visitors to a lead.
The short-fused Hartley pulled Dunham and – in the most important game of his team’s existence – turned over the netminding reins to rookie back-up Michael Garnett, who hadn’t played since Jan. 2. Garnett surrendered one goal on three shots over the rest of the first frame, but he pulled a groin muscle and Hartley had no option but to reinstall Dunham for the final 40 minutes. Atlanta trailed 3-2 at that juncture.
Garnet Exelby and Bondra scored in the second, and the Thrashers headed into the third with a 4-3 lead and a 28-15 advantage in shots on goal.
The Caps headed into the third with Halpern’s October words echoing in their collective heads. Alex Ovechkin, Brian Willsie and Pettinger (his 20th of the season) scored to humble the Thrashers and extinguish their playoff hopes.
“There are no secrets,” admitted goaltender Olie Kolzig after the game. “We hate that team. It started at the beginning of the year. They push the limits on how hard they play, and they spanked us a few times earlier in the year. [It’s] sweet revenge. We had the last laugh and we don’t feel bad about it.”
The Caps added a little more salt into Atlanta’s wound when they defeated Tampa Bay by a 4-1 score in the season finale.
“You always want to shut teams down from having any sort of success,” says Laich, looking back at that April 2006 game earlier today. “Who knows? Maybe they make the playoffs that year, they have some success, sign some free agents and they’re that much harder to play against going forward. The whole course of things between then and now might have been altered.”
Also, hockey players have long memories and the karma bus comes by every 20 minutes. Gloat and over-celebrate at your own peril.
“Anytime you’re embarrassed or disrespected,” says Laich, “you’re licking your chops at a chance for redemption. We don’t forget.”
The ill feelings between the two teams spilled into the following season of 2006-07. The Caps and Thrashers met four times in the first 21 games of that campaign, and the bad blood boiled over late in a Nov. 22, 2006 game at Verizon Center. Many fighting majors, fines and suspensions came about in the wake of that Atlanta-Washington game on the night before Thanksgiving, and Hartley and Caps coach Glen Hanlon had to be separated in the hallways of the building following the game.
Tonight’s game will be intense, but it isn’t likely to include that sort of fireworks.
While Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg is Washington’s last Southeast Division game ever, but there is one more Southeast Division tilt still on the books for later this week. When Florida visits Tampa Bay this Saturday night in the final regular season game for both teams, the Southeast will be no more.
Hockey writers loved to malign the Southeast, but the division dwellers held their own over the years when it mattered most, in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This is the 14th and final season of the Southeast Division’s existence. Southeast clubs represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup final on three separate occasions. That’s the same number of Cup finalists the Northeast Division produced over the same span.
The Southeast claimed two Cup titles in the previous 13 years, and that’s one more than the five Northeast clubs – Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto – produced over the same period.
Don’t tell them that, though.