According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of rival is "one of two or more striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess; one striving for competitive advantage." An archrival is "a principal rival." For most NHL hockey teams, a principal rival is a team in their division, one that they have to duke it out with to win a top-3 seed in the conference and home-ice advantage, as division rivals play each other 6 times per season and only one team can win the division any given year. For the teams that do not win the division, they fight with other teams in their division and conference for the remaining 5 playoff seeds, and conference opponents play each other 4 times per season. Once the playoffs begin, playoff rivalries take shape, as two teams enter each series and only one will emerge victorious. It is not just the Stanley Cup at stake, players that perform well in the Stanley Cup playoffs nearly always see a pay increase in their next contract, have better job options after retirement, and so on. Teams that perform well in the playoffs have an easier time attracting quality free agents, their executives stay employed longer, and they sell more merchandise. Rivalries have real meaning beyond just what happens on the ice and at the bank, too, as the fans will pay more money to see rivalry games, and those games often get prime-time television spots and national coverage. Like Colorado-Detroit in the 1990s, Boston-Montreal every year, and Alien versus Predator, some rivalries never seem to go away, no matter how old or outdated they seem.
Considering the Washington Capitals play in the Southeast Division, their only divisional archrival candidate from the past 18 seasons is the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning were a threat for the 2011 division crown and also knocked the Capitals out of the playoffs in 2003 and 2011. None of the other teams have been good enough consistently to be a threat in the regular season, and the Capitals have also never faced any other division rival in the playoffs. The Lightning never seem to be good enough consistently to hold the mantle for very long, though, and that creates a rivalry vacuum for the Capitals within the Southeast. The next best thing to a division rival is a conference playoff rival, a team you play in the playoffs every season, a team you hate so much even your star players get into fights. It's a team that you have clear memories of events that had nothing to do with the outcome of the game, whether it's the fans, the coaches, or the fights. That new primary rival for the Capitals over the past four seasons has been the New York Rangers, and they are the team's new archrival.
Consider that the Washington Capitals have faced the New York Rangers in three of the past four postseasons. The hate doesn't really start until you lose to a team in the playoffs, though, and we all remember the classic seven-game series the two teams just played. The Rangers and their fans had a lot more hate for the Caps than vice-versa, and it showed in their intensity level through the series. The Rangers won two overtime games, including one in triple overtime and a heartbreaker that the Caps were leading with 7 seconds left. The Capitals were starting a rookie goalie for the third straight postseason against the Rangers and their MVP-candidate goalie, Henrik Lundqvist. All of the games were close, both teams gave maximum effort, and the top-seeded Rangers finally beat the Capitals after losing the past two match-ups. Even the New York fans got into the act. In Game 2, the fans were heckling #8 Alexander Ovechkin at the 8 minute mark of every period with chants of "O-V s*cks!", just as they had done in the first round at the 11 minute mark for Senators' captain Daniel Alfredsson (#11). In response, Mike Knuble scored 20 seconds after the first period chant and Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winner himself 33 seconds after the third-period chant, cupping his hand to his ear as he celebrated the goal. The series came down to a 1-goal Game 7, and the Capitals could not breach the Rangers' defense to equalize the game.
After missing the playoffs in 2010 on the last day of the season, the 2011 Rangers made it to the playoffs as the 8th seed. They quickly lost the series in 5 games to the top-seeded Capitals, but it took a nail-biter in double overtime in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden. Even though it was a short series, it featured the Madison Square Garden crowd heckling Bruce Boudreau in Game 4 for his comments about the aging arena and its fans, serenading him with chants of "Can you hear us?" The Capitals' fans responded in Game 5 with chants of "We are louder" as the Caps clinched their first series win not to go seven games since 1998.
In 2009, the seventh seeded Rangers took 2-0 and 3-1 leads against the Southeast Division Champion Capitals before bowing out in 7 games. That series had all the makings of a classic. It featured serious chirping amongst the players and coaches, including Ryan Callahan accusing Shaone Morrisonn of biting him and Sean Avery chirping at his former coach, Bruce Boudreau, behind the Capitals' bench. The Capitals had a former MVP in goal for Game 1, but they replaced him with a rookie for Game 2 and he won the series. Rangers' coach John Tortorella was suspended for Game 6 after squirting a heckler with a water bottle from the bench in Game 5. His Game 6 replacement was a former Capitals head coach. And, of course, there was the drama of Game 7, when Sergei Fedorov scored a late goal to break a 1-1 tie and give the Capitals their first playoff series win in 10 seasons.
Beyond the playoff rivalry, these two teams have been been beating the stuffing out of each other in the regular season, too. Last season, the two teams split the season series, but in 3 of the four games, one team ran up the score. Good players were getting into shoving matches, like Nicklas Backstrom and Ryan Callahan taking matching minors in the final regular season game. Even so, the penalty minute totals were the lowest in years, only 54 in 4 games.
It was a more violent and hate-filled season series in 2010-11, with the Rangers taking 3 of 4 and authoring a pair of shutout-blowouts, 6-0 and 7-0. That four-game season series featured 5 fights, 3 sets of coincidental minors, and 2 misconducts; 146 PIM in all. Even Mike Green and Alexander Ovechkin got into fights with Brandon Dubinsky.
In 2009-10, the Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals took 3 of 4 from New York, but again they were often high-scoring and undisciplined games, with 1 fight, a dust-up between Nicklas Backstrom and Ryan Callahan (sound familiar?) and 100 penalty minutes total.
Even in 2008-09, before a recent playoff series, it was apparent the teams didn't like each other. Who could forget the fight between Alexander Semin and Marc Staal?
In that season series, the Capitals took 3 of 4 one-goal games, and there were four fights and 114 penalty minutes in the series.
When it comes down to it, familairity breeds contempt, and these two teams just plain don't like each other. They have played each other a lot over the past four seasons, they are both frustrating teams to play against, and they both have big, fast, talented, and nasty players. Going forward, with the way the Rangers and Capitals have been built, they will likely challenge each other for the best record Eastern Conference next season, as one of these two teams has been the #1 seed in each of the past 3 seasons. The Capitals have not been the volume or intensity of incidents like these with any other team since the beginning of the Boudreau era. The only other teams the Capitals have played in the playoffs since 2008 have been Montreal, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Tampa, and they have all been rivalries to some extent, too, but not like with New York.
For some fans of the Washington Capitals, the archrival will always be the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals played the Penguins in the playoffs 5 times in six seasons from 1990-91 through 1995-96, losing four, often in dramatic fashion. They played twice more a few years later, losing both series in 1999-00 and 2000-01. Capitals fans shook their fists in anger and frustration as the seemingly laissez-faire Penguins kept escaping the very structured Capitals' noose by outscoring the Caps at will and taking nearly every overtime game. The last time the Capitals played the Penguins in the playoffs, 2008-09, it was the height of the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are natural rivals, as they both competed for the same end-of-season awards. Both players were drafted first overall, Ovechkin in 2004 and Crosby in 2005, and they entered the league in the same season. They are vastly different in personality and playing style, but both posted 100 point seasons as rookies, and Ovechkin took rookie of the year. Crosby won MVP and the scoring title in 2006-07, Ovechkin won the them the next year. In 2008-09, a new threat emerged, the man who went #2 to Ovechkin in 2004, Evgeni Malkin. As Ovechkin won his second goal-scoring title, Malkin won the points scoring title with Pittsburgh, edging out Ovechkin while Crosby missed a big chunk of the season. When the Caps and Pens were matched up in the 2009 playoffs, the series was hyped up to the extreme and it lived up to its billing, as the Penguins won in seven games and Ovechkin and Crosby scored dueling hat tricks in the same game. In 2009-10, Crosby edged out Ovechkin for the goal-scoring lead and they finished tied in points, but both lost out to Henrik Sedin for the scoring lead.
Since then, the Capitals and Penguins have drifted apart, despite Alexander Semin's comments. They have not been division rivals since 1992-93, the last year of the Patrick Division. They have only played the one playoff series since 2001, and both teams missed the playoffs quite a few times in between. They were selected to face each other in the 2011 Winter Classic, but it was in that game that Sidney Crosby suffered the first major head blow that cost him most of the last two seasons. Evgeni Malkin also soon bowed out of the the rest of that season with a knee injury, too, but Alex Ovechkin was already on his way down. After scoring 65 goals in 2007-08, Ovechkin has scored just 70 in the last two seasons combined. Crosby, on the other hand, has once again taken a back seat to his teammate in Evgeni Malkin. Not only did Malkin actually win a rookie of the year award, Malkin was the playoff MVP in 2009 over Crosby, and he just won his second scoring title and likely will take home his first MVP award to outpace Crosby in the trophy department. In short, Crosby and Ovechkin have been largely irrelevant over the past two seasons, and Ovechkin's brief rivalry with Evgeni Malkin seems to have cooled off as the two won the gold medal together at the 2012 IIHF World Championships.
As heated as that rivalry was in the early 1990s and 2000s, the head-to-head player rivalry of 8 vs. 87 was made-for-TV, and the shine has worn off now that neither player is in the spotlight any more. Even the Penguins and their fans would tell you their primary rival these days is the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers are their division foe, cross-state rival, and playoff opponent this season, never mind the history. This season's playoff series between them was ugly in most every sense of the word, as the hate showed through like never before. In fact, any Atlantic Division team is likely to come before the Capitals on the Penguins' most hated team list, even if Alexander Ovechkin is at or near the top of most-hated player lists along the eastern seaboard. With four Atlantic Division teams in the playoffs and within 7 points of each other in the standings this season, plus three playoff series against each other, they were true rivals.
The Penguins are an historic rival of the Washington Capitals, just like the New York Islanders are. For those that don't remember, the Capitals' played the New York Islanders in their first four playoff years beginning in 1982-83, losing the first three to their Patrick Division rival. The Capitals won in 1986, but the lost a heart-breaking quadruple overtime game on Easter morning in 1987 to the Isles, too. Then, in case anyone doesn't remember, the Capitals also lost to the Islanders in 1992-93, a playoff series made famous by the Dale Hunter hit from behind on Pierre Turgeon. That's 6 playoff series in 10 years, but everyone forgot about the Islanders by the late 1990s as they fell off the face of the Earth under bad management and ownership, failing to qualify for the playoffs for several years. Nobody would claim the Islanders and Capitals are archrivals now, despite the closeness of the games over the past few years.
If anything, the Rangers are just as good historic playoff rivals as any other team. The Capitals have played them 7 times in their playoff history, the second most of all time, and own a 4-3 record against them. They were also division rivals longer than the Caps and Penguins ever were. Since 1974-75, the Washington Capitals have played in the same division as the Penguins 17 seasons, none since 1992-93. They have been in the same division as the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning for the past 18 seasons, too. The teams the Capitals have been division rivals with the most in their history are the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Rangers, 19 seasons in all, but none since 1997-98.
It is clear that the Penguins will always be a hated team in D.C., but like the New York Islanders, they have not been relevant to the Capitals' fortunes for a while. In fact, 2009 was a passing of the torch in a way, as the Rangers rivalry began to develop then as the Penguins rivalry reached its zenith and began to fall away. In reality, the Rangers have been a simmering rival for years, but the rivalry has heated up. If the league has its way, the Capitals and Rangers will be in the same division again in 2013, and who knows how many times they will play each other in the playoffs before then.