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Making a Rivalry: Carolina Hurricanes and the Washington Capitals

After 22 years in the same division can we finally call Caps and Canes a rivalry?

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals - Game Seven Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: It’s rivalry week at SB Nation, and we’re making an argument for a new entry on the league’s rivalry list.

When the Hartford Whalers first moved to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes, there was only one other team located within a day’s drive” the Washington Capitals. The Canes creation was great for my family who were Caps fans from when we were stationed at Ft Meade. We could now see them in North Carolina just a few hours from Bragg.

This is part of the reason the rivalry could happen; you have a transient population that moves between Northern Virginia/Maryland and North Carolina in the military. More recently the two areas have become even closer with tons of people moving between the two areas.

Kidd Photo by John Giamundo/Getty Images

I seem to have done the reverse, with most people moving from DC to Raleigh, and I moved to DC. However, my time spent in Raleigh and North Carolina is the reason why I am a fan of the Canes now. It didn’t happen immediately, but it came around in the 2000’s which has caused a split in fandom in my family that exists today. My Mom and I root for the Canes while my Brother and my Dad root for the Caps. I have seen the potential for a rivalry ever since.

Early Beginnings Look Promising and the Fall of the Caps

It took just one year after the Canes re-location for this to take place with the creation of the Southeast Division in 1998. This saw the Canes placed in a four-team grouping with the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the Washington Capitals.

For the first four seasons, from 1998-2002, of the Southeast Divisions the Canes and Caps split the top spot in the division. The Caps won in the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons while the Canes won the 1998-1999 and 2001-02 seasons. The main problem was they never met in the playoffs to really stoke the flames of the rivalry.

Just when we think we were going to get something explosive; the Caps fell off the pace and hard. They were bottom of the barrel for years to come, but this allowed them to draft Alex Ovechkin. All the while the Canes stayed strong and eventually won the Stanley Cup in the 2005-2006 season with the Caps finishing second to last in the division again.

Alexander Ovechkin Press Conference Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It took a couple of years for the Caps to finally peak with their new core of players including Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The two seemed destined to finally meet in the playoffs in the 2009 NHL Playoffs, only the second time the two playoffs at the same time. With the Canes and Caps both up against a second-round game seven, we could have had the two meet up in the Eastern Conference Finals. Talk about garnering some hate and strong emotions among players and fans.

But it was not meant to be; the Caps lost in Game seven, as they often do, to the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Canes beat the Bruins in overtime. We all know what happened next.

The Great Playoff Drought

After this season it was all downhill for the Canes, as we all are too aware of. The Canes now had their slide. It lasted much longer than the Caps at 10 years, but the downplay of the Canes also meant that no one had to circle them on the calendar.

Trust me, I have gone to almost every Canes at Caps game since 2012 and I can count on one hand how many wins I have seen. The Canes were looked down upon and seen as a joke to people in Northern Virginia and DC. The Canes are the little brother in the rivalry, seeing the Caps as a rival but not the other way around.

But as time has gone on and the Canes have shown more promise over the last few years, you started to see more and more Canes sweaters at the now Capital One Arena. While I would be one of maybe two or three people supporting the Canes, I would see in 2012-2016, in 2017, 2018, and 2019 you would see more and more and more.

Eventually Caps fans started to notice and start asking more questions. They would at least hear the Canes were an up and coming team even if they didn’t know anything about them. Then it happened.

The Spark

After 22 years of existence, the two teams finally had what they needed to create a real rivalry and some real hatred, a playoff series. This time it was the defending Champions vs the plucky upstart Canes, and the feelings around DC were exactly that. It was Caps in four or Caps in five; no one expected a game six let alone losing in game seven.

I could walk around the area and people would give a light ribbing but it was more like being patted on the head saying “look at you all optimistic, good for you experiencing playoff hockey.” But that feeling didn’t last long.

It started around game three when the fans realized it wasn’t going to be a sweep and that the Canes had a chance. It was also the game where Andrei Svechnikov challenged Ovi to a fight and Brind’Amour stood up for his player. Then it exploded in game four when Warren Foegele injured T.J. Oshie, the Caps lost and the series was tied.

Then things got a little more interesting in the area wearing a Canes jersey. Simply being indifferent to the hit on Oshie made people disgusted, and then I knew the hate was finally there. This was becoming a real rivalry. I will say until the result of game seven, there was never a part of me that felt in danger being in public or at the Capital One arena, unlike other places among the Northeast.

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals - Game Seven Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We know how the series ended; it was one of the greatest game sevens in history and there’s nothing quite like hearing a full arena go silent at the same time. Causing a team heartbreak and ending their season is exactly how you get a target on your back and produce a spark. But when you combine that with the physical nature of the series and Brind’Amour unabashedly supporting his players in the media you get a full-blown explosion.

The Canes are building to a rivalry that feels like the Devils in the mid 2000’s, but with a closer neighbor and one that we know better. One of the important reasons that we need the Canes to win against the Rangers in the play-in round is to see the Caps again in the playoffs. The fanbase needs a villain and needs to be mentioned in other markets. Seeing Washington again, and hopefully winning again, will make this happen. If the Canes lose momentum, it will just feel like they’re still punching up to a team that could care less.